A Story in Three Cities:
Heshy thought Lester Young was his friend.
How so? Well, consider the point biographically.
Lester was born Lester Willis Young on August 27, 1909 in Woodsville, Mississippi and became known around the world as Prez. Heshy was born Heshy Azberg in Winnipeg Manitoba on November 11, 1946 and became known to less than 60 people as Az. Lester’s father, William, son of a freed slave, was among other things (farmer, teacher, blacksmith) a trained musician who had studied at Tuskegee in Alabama, and had immersed Lester in music from day one, in playing the drums, trumpet, violin, reeds and piano. When Lester, not yet in his teens, asked his father how he could get famous, William said, “Three ways, sweat, sweat, sweat.”
Born proletariat poor in Vilkomeer, Lithuania in 1903, Heshy’s father, Leibel Azberg, (whose own father Itzik owned a small, dusty tavern) was the first Jew to study higher mathematics at the renowned Advanced Science Institute in Lithuania. Nothing if not lusty, idealistic and intense, Leibel in his early twenties was a rebel with a cause, a mathematician, a Marxist, a pretty good athlete — a high jumper, a passable chess player, an actor, a tavern hound, a roisterer, a lover of Yiddish literature, particularly when it came to the poetry, plays and stories of the Jewish masses, for example the works of Mendele Mocher Sforim, I.L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem. Leibel was one of the chevreh – one of the gang. So Heshy grew up swimming in his boy’s understanding of the ideas of Marx, in algebraic equations and geometric proofs, chess, Yiddish and the adventures of Motl Paysi and Tevye der Milkhiker.
When Lester was still a baby, William moved the family to New Orleans, where they lived until Lester was ten. By ten, Lester was drumming in the family band. His brother Lee played trombone and piano. His sister Erma played piano, violin and tambourine. William himself played piano, trumpet and drums. Lester’s step mother, Sara, played some banjo and saxophone. (Sara came on the scene after William and Lester’s mother, Lizetta, separated.) By about thirteen, Lester began to find himself musically. He knew he wanted to play only the saxophone. William didn’t like so restricting a choice. But even at thirteen, Lester, though sweet and dignified, was wild and tough. He staked out the C-Melody sax, registered his claim and mined it. Just about then, in 1923, William moved the family again, this time from New Orleans to Minneapolis. For Heshy, many years later, Lizetta seemed the key to Lester’s wondrous mystery. She, like him, was light-skinned. She, like him, was deeply musical and other worldly. They were both beautiful. Lester at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, his whole life really, was Lizetta and more.
You should know that as a kid, Heshy was nowhere musically, except for hugely incidental stage singing before his voice broke. Before then, his big hazel eyes, dimples, and shock of curly brown hair compensated for his off key, flat soprano voice. As a young teen, ill-fated guitar lessons from a red-faced Brit led to Heshy’s unprecedented expulsion from said guitar lessons: “For two bucks an hour, it’s just not worth it.” As for an Azberg family band, just forget it. Leibel was spirited but tone deaf. He couldn’t sing in tune to save his life. Heshy’s mother, Basha, adored opera with a passion she could not fulfill and knew she was no singer, a truth Leibel in his high spirits could not believe about himself. The only good thing you could say about Heshy’s musicality was that his brother Sonny, thirteen years older, was worse. So bad in fact that before Heshy was born, after a few stabs by Sonny on the mandolin, Shmulik Gershuny, cap maker by day, fledging Lester Flatt by night, insisted on refunding Leibel the mandolin lesson money: “Please take the money. I can’t keep it. It would be wrong Comrade. You must take it back. Maybe you can get Shoimeleh to take up Ping Pong or maybe the Yo Yo.”
Talk about moving families, Leibel, ultimately an itinerant Yiddish teacher by profession for the Bund, moved the Azbergs from Montreal to Toronto to Winnipeg, where Heshy was born in 1946, back to Toronto when Heshy was six in 1952, and then to Vancouver when Heshy was 13 in 1960. By that time Sonny had married Dolores, moved to Toronto to go to law school and Heshy, short and skinny, had grown some glowing acne and was wearing bottle-thick glasses.
Yet for all that, Lester’s moving around when growing up seemed perpetual compared to Heshy’s. After the shock of moving from New Orleans to Minneapolis, the Youngs traveled endlessly in various circles as a family band with minstrel shows during carnival season. For instance they traveled in a circle through the Dakotas, through Kansas, through Nebraska and back to Minnesota. On another trip they went through Sandgap Kentucky, Lexington Kentucky, Bowling Green Kentucky, Knoxville Tennessee, Chattanooga Tennessee, Tiptonville Tennessee, back through Knoxville, through Roanoke Virginia, Flomaton Alabama and Harlem Kentucky.
Lester traveled with seventy six women in the show. William, once, sensing something untoward, slapped Lester hard across the face, the pain of which drilled itself into him for his whole life. He took off for days. He did this every once in a while, even sometimes for a few weeks. But he always came back.
The army drafted Lester when he was thirty five. Then he was a jazz musician. So cool he called everyone Lady. He smoked dope. He talked jive. He was poetic. He was ethereal. And most of all, he played like an angel. He was a bad fit for the army. The army worked him over, set in him a state of permanent weariness, took some of the angelic lilt out of life and his playing, burned him down and broke him down, made his playing wearier, older sounding, sad-assed, bitter and more coarse. Years later when Heshy thought about it, he thought what the army did to Lester Young was a twentieth century travesty, a tragic instance of how machinery could chew up beauty.
For Heshy, playing in the family band around the circuit, moving, say, through Northern Manitoba, swinging through the Lakehead, jamming down to Fargo, North Dakota and back up to Winnipeg, with, can you imagine, him blowing sax, Leibel rocking on bass, Sonny pounding the skins, and Basha, a veritable Mary Lou Williams, brilliant on the ivories, was beyond any and all reckoning. The glimmer of it, the remote, winking possibility of it, never came close to flitting through his mind. But something musical did come crashing into him once, when he was ten.
Leibel and Basha, who herself didn’t work, made bare ends meet. After all, how much could a Bundist, itinerant Yiddish teacher earn in the Canada of the nineteen fifties? So the Azbergs were late coming to television, late to Ed Sullivan, late to, and wide of, Elvis. Heshy at ten was oblivious to commercial music. Elvis, meanwhile, rocked and bucked his hips, as he danced on stage in his convulsively electric gyrating way. He was Pentecostal fervour merged with Black American rhythm made sexual flesh. And he released a vast sexual energy throughout the land. He was the epicentre of a tornado that gathered into itself and swirled in mighty cylindrical force all the winds of the American South. The tornado started in Memphis and touched down often all over the world. Even in Winnipeg.
What bit of music Heshy heard on the radio in 1956 when he was ten was stale junk like How Much Is That Doggie In The Window by Patti Page or Que Sera Sera by Doris Day. He heard some talk about Elvis Presley and rock and roll, but the talk made no impression on him. It was planets away from his preoccupation with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and his beginner’s education in touching himself—“Geez, that’s nice.”
Then one deep spring Saturday morning in Winnipeg, on Salter Street, in his North End Jewish enclave, Heshy was slowly waking up, lying in bed, stretching, stretching his arms and legs, then just lolling and luxuriating like a cat, the past week of school prison behind him and two days before its gates would shut him in for another week. Radio in his room turned on, he heard the Lone Ranger riding off at the end of another episode. Leibel in the kitchen was making his Hesheleh a bubbeleh: scrambled eggs flavoured with vanilla and sugar on a piece of French Fried toast. Now Heshy could hear his friends playing Kick The Can in the back alley that ran beside his house. He got anxious to join them, to get up, get dressed, eat the bubbeleh and be gone.
Waiting for his breakfast to be ready, he turned the radio dial looking for another cowboy. He heard an announcer say, “Now, Tutti Frutti, by Elvis Presley.” Heshy paused, curious, having heard some school talk about Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan. So he listened.
And blammo, there it came. “Wop-bop-a-loom-a-blop-bam-boom/Tutti frutti, oh Rudy, tutti frutti, oh Rudy/Tutti frutti, oh Rudy, tutti frutti, oh Rudy/Tutti frutti, oh Rudy/ Wop-bop-a-loom-a-blop-bam-boom/I got a gal named Sue/She knows just what to do…” Heshy didn’t know what she knew how to do, but it all thrilled him and shook him and set him on fire. The frantic urgent singing, the screaming sax, the drums’ insistent backbeat spine structuring the whole mess.
What is it that happens to a skinny, ten year old, dream-minded little boy in 1956 in Winnipeg’s North End, waiting for his father to finish making a bubbeleh, ready to run out to play Kick The Can with his friends in the alley on a glorious, carefree Saturday morning, away from the prison of school, when he hears, really hears, for the first time, Elvis Presley singing Tutti Frutti right to his inner ear and says to himself excitedly, “This is my music! That’s it! This is me!”
Now, let’s jump ahead by a couple of years.
Heshy and his North End friends, 13, 14, years old, one of them even a few years older, are getting somewhat wise-assed. Knowing, street-wise little smart asses, edgy, working class, mid-Western Jewish boys, starting to get it together. Boys like Heshy, Morris, David, Mendy, Saul, Morty, Monty, Hershey, the older one, and Choch. Just beginning to edge past puberty, they loved the Bombers, the Cards, the Gold Eyes, The Toronto Maple Leafs, Elvis, and what they understood of rock and roll, American Bandstand style, Philly-Italian, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton and Bobby Vee. White and safe.
And the girls, oh my! The girls. They loved the girls, pubescent, bursting, seemingly all-knowing girls, all knowing, it seemed, because of the mystery about them and in them, some dimly sensed promised land, they could not really understand. Debbie Pearl, Shoshanna Adler, Lainie Bernstein. Dolly Greenberg, Sharon Katz, Jackie Levinter, and of course their Miss Universe, Merle Umglick. They were all going crazy over their hormones, slow dancing at parties, necking, some tentative touching— “Geez, didja’ get a feel? What’s it like?”—the boys slow dancing, springing boners, not knowing what to do with them, and, so, sometimes dancing like ducks, ass end in the air.
These boys couldn’t have been knit closer together in the bosomy enclave of the North End of Winnipeg. In the warm weather, lying in the field, or on the boulevard, chewing on blades of grass, sipping cokes, bullshitting about everything. Getting together at Mendy’s house every spare minute—his parents never home—sipping at his parents’ wine and even Scotch, smoking, singing, singing for hours. Can you imagine it: three, four or five wise-assed, little Jewish boys singing as if they were standing on a cold, busy corner in Bed Stuy, harmonizing acapella, while the constant buzz of city noise enveloped them like the city air they breathed? Mendy, tongue hanging out of his mouth, slobbering, slow talking and pooch-like. Morty, curly haired, round faced with a perpetual smile, Saul, quiet, aloof, tall and slender, smooth talking even then, drawing the boys to him like a magnet, Hershey, a couple of years older, olive skinned, swarthy, shaving, brooding, surly. Choch, beautiful, every mother’s favourite, dancing round eyes, shining hair jet black, delicate boned, all of that pushing to a point just before effeminacy. Heshy loved these boys and these times with them in the North End. But, he had a real sense that even in the midst of their experiences, time was slipping away as if their life together was cool, pure water flowing through his hands, there, and then gone.
Beaten even before he started, Heshy went head to head with Saul for the heart of Merle Umglick. What a honey of a girl she was even at thirteen, long wavy brown blonde hair, tall, almond shaped face, big green eyes, full bodied, long shapely legs, full lips always but not quite pouting. He’d phone her, go down the list of topics he wrote down to talk to her about, blast through the list quickly and then get stuck on mute. After a few seconds went by that felt to him like minutes, she’d say, “Well, gotta’ go. Thanks for calling. Bye.”
So, beaten before he started, Heshy finally got shot down, Saul in solid with her. But not till after a few parties, some slow dancing, some necking, feeling her breasts swell against his body, some mutual tighter clutching, tongues in mouths, cock erect, about to explode, bodies pressing, pressing, pressing. Song over. Merle: “Thanks for the dance. Gotta’ go. Bye.” Slow dancing with Merle Umglick was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him.
Then, just like that, it was over. Heshy, thirteen, got yanked out of the bosomy enclave of the North End. Leibel and Basha laid it on him: “We’re moving to Vancouver.” “Okay.”
If the boys in the North End were his family, Heshy, at first, in Vancouver, felt like an orphan. They’d moved from a house to an apartment, from a tight Jewish ghetto to an indefinable, bland sprawl of houses, lawns, trees and low rise apartments. Heshy was confused: “What’s with the mountains, the ocean. Where am I exactly? What kinda’ place is this?” No Inkster Boulevard to play ball on. No green fields to lie around on and bullshit in. No Y to hang out at. No Blue Bombers. No girls he knew. No boys he knew for that matter. No Hershey to straighten everyone out about everything. No Mendy’s house to lose time at. No parties. No dances. No shots at a feel. No Merle Umglick to dream on. No nothing.
Worse, grade nine meant high school. Little kids thirteen and fourteen years old to adult monsters of eighteen and nineteen coming at Heshy like strange creatures. Menacing.
Everything was strange and different. Take Asian kids, for instance. Never had Heshy been around them in a tight place. And hoods. They were everywhere. Tough looking guys, greasy hair slicked back. Black leather jackets over white T shirts slammed into blue jeans extending down to motor cycle boots, or slick Cuban heels or black Bankers polished at their nuts-kicking tips to a high gloss. In North End Winnipeg, greasers were on the periphery, there but inconsequential. Here they seemed all over and in his face: in his classes, walking or just hanging around in small gangs as he went to and from school. Standing in small groups on street corners near where he lived. His first day in school, Heshy, knowing no one, mistakenly went into a grade eleven English class and sat in it for about ten minutes: “Geez, people here are tall.” Before he realized he was in the wrong class, the size of his “class mates” depressed him though he was happy at the size of the girls’ breasts.
On the seventh day at this new prison, Heshy met rhythm and blues. Sitting in a grade nine social studies class in an unbolted desk, the lack of desks in rows adding to the chaos, Mr. Harnett, a failed athlete turned gym teacher, lost without boys in shorts, T shirts and sneakers to push around, droning on, hating social studies as much as his students did, Heshy’s mind wandered. Reveries of the North End. Then a gleam caught his eye. Beside him amongst this misbegotten room of lumps, sat a squat, duck tailed, Chinese hood, whose eyes and nostrils seemed in perpetual flair. But his shoes. Oh my! They were testicle-searing, spear-pointed black Bankers, dusty and scuffed, but the glossy, capped toe of the shoe curving into the tipped point had been shined to a silky, patent leather- like, deep black gloss. Heshy thought he could probably catch his reflection in the shine. Ever tactile, he could not, did not try to resist, leaning over and running his hand and fingers over that part of the shoe. And the touch was everything he imagined it might be. “Ah man, what a feel!”
“Hey, why you fuckin’ touchin’ ma shoe, man? You crazy?”
“Geez, I’m sorry. Just that shine, that leather. I never saw that before. It’s great. Hey, I hope that’s okay. Look, I’m sorry but I just had to know what it felt like.”
“You like my shoes? “
“Geez, yeah. They’re great.”
Smiling now, “Whas’ yo name?
“Heshy, Heshy Azberg. I just moved here a couple of weeks ago from Winnipeg. You’ve got very nice shoes.”
Smiling more, “You crazy. Ma name’s Tinsley Chow. You come over to ma house right after school . I meet you at the corner of Twelf an Oak. Right after last bell. You like James Brown?”
“I never heard of him.”
Exploding, “Never heard of him. Ike and Tina Turner?”
“Who? Never heard of them.”
“Come on! Ike and Tina Turner!”
“I don’t know them.”
“Sam and Dave? Sam Cooke? Otis Redding? The Wailers, Louie Louie?”
“Sorry, none of them. I don’t know them.”
“Fuck, what music you like?”
“I dunno, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Elvis Presley. You know, guys who sing on Bandstand. Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell. Guys like that.”
“You fuckin’ serious? You like those guys? You like Bobby Curtola, that shit? Three rows over and two seats down?”
“Yeah I like all that.”
“You know R&B?”
“Maybe I heard of it. I’m not sure.”
“Holy fuck! Whuch’you do in Winnipeg?”
“Geez, I dunno. Not much, I guess.”
Tinsley lived in a small, semi detached house on 13th Avenue just West off Cambie in a neighbourhood a few cuts above squalid. Heshy had never before met a Chinese kid, let alone befriended one or gone over to his house. The first stop of the tour was a small garage where Tinsley had tied a small rubber ball to a string hanging from a rafter, the ball about six feet above the ground. “I kick this evra day. Practice, man. Watch.” Tinsley repeatedly leaped into the air his right foot kicking upward, his toe kicking the ball, even as it swung from previous kicks. Heshy had never seen anything like it. He was astonished. “Geez!” “Nobody fuck with me or ma frenz. So nobody fuck with you.”
Next on to Tinsley’s room. It was cramped and small, with a rickety, plain brown desk and wooden chair, with a small portable record player on it, a thin, black shag rug on the floor, a small pine dresser, and a small sliver of a bed flush against the wall. But what amazed him was the ocean of forty-fives. They were piled chaotically everywhere: on the floor, all over the bed, the dresser, the desk, the chair.
“Geez. I’ve never seen so many records. What do you do with ‘em all?”
“You crazy. I play ‘em.”
And he did. Frantically. Like he was in a race. Put one on. Let it play for about forty seconds. Then another. And another. And another. All the same way. And the running commentary. “Hey, wha I say. Who call the English teacher…the Coasters man. Wailers now, Louie, Louie, here we gotta go. You should hear Sack of Woe. I gotta find it.” The records were sharks, each one swimming in that record ocean, ready to devour the one spinning for the few seconds of its playing life. “James Brown, that deep Africa, man. Baddest fuckin’ nigger in the U.S.A. Love ‘im. You gotta see him dance. Legs like rubber. And he move so fast. You can’t see ‘em. James Brown, he love opera. S’got the biggest opera collection inna’ world. He usta’ shine shoes in Atlanta in fronna’ big building. Now he own that building. Tina Turner. Oh man, she twitch her twat. She lose ten pounds a show. She just sing and dance fucking. Like to eat her up, how she move. Otis was a driver. Just got up one day and started singing. Don’t know where. Georgia maybe. Guy’s so cool. Broads love ‘im. Sit on his face, suck ‘is cock, whaever he wan, anytime he wan. Can’t dance though. Sam and Dave, man. They hate each other.”
“Hesha’ boy, you gotta forget all at white shit you been lissenin’ to.”
After half an hour of this, Heshy was exhausted. He felt spent. But they were thirty minutes of crystal clarity to him right from the first few notes he heard of the first record Tinsley put on, “What I Say.” Even with all the frantic, nonstop playing of fractions of records and all the disjointed, spontaneous, play by play, a sense of order prevailed, a sun around which everything orbited however weirdly. The pounding, incessant, rhythmic beat that grabbed that Chinese boy’s balls, grabbed Heshy’s too.
Those later days in the North End, dancing close, kissing, pressing in, not knowing exactly where it all led. Sort of knowing, but not knowing exactly. Now he knew he knew exactly. He’d just passed his crash course from the R&B College of Sexual Knowledge. This music meant fucking, pure and clean. It meant putting your hard cock inside a wet cunt—things he’d read about, shot the shit about, cracked wise about—and rocking and rolling and rocking (“like your back don’t have a bone”) and coming. “Ok, Tinsley, I gotta’ go.” Now fast friends. “OK Hesha’ boy, see ya at school tomorrow. We eat lunch togetha with some otha’ guys.” “Sure. Sounds great. See ya.”
High School got going. Tinsley’s friends became Heshy’s friends. The high school years started to roll by. In the way friendships procreate, Tinsley begat Samuel who begat Lanny Quan who begat Priscillo Alberto, (a delicate, thin Philippine switch-blader, who took away Tinsley’s girl friend Suzie Quayle, aka Suzie Q., from O’Connor, a big, stocky, ugly hood, who had taken her away from Tinsley), who begat Arne Sana, Finnish, lethally quiet, blonde, tow headed and tough, who begat Gentleman Jim Arpell, going through women and girls the way a hot knife goes through butter, melting it as it goes, begat Little Lenny Harvey, another Jewish kid, who begat Bullshit Jerry Butwiliwitz, all talk no anything else, who begat Fred Britten, a late comer to their circle, who cracked bad once about Jews, Tinsley pointing to Heshy, saying, “He’s a Jew, but he’s onea’ us,” Heshy thrilled.
Yet of them all, all like Heshy’s North End friends, all working class street kids, wise, so they thought, in the ways of the world, Lanny Quan was everybody’s hero. Heshy loved him. Diminutive, beautifully handsome, prettier even than Choch, veering even closer than Choch to that point where masculinity loses itself to effeminancy, just stopping short by a twist of genetic fate, in a game of sexual micro-milliteres. What couldn’t Lanny at fifteen do? Exquisite looking, magnetic, girls chased him with an intensity spiked by Lanny’s shyness. He ran track, not far off B.C. junior sprint records, 10.9 seconds for the hundred yards. He was a dead eye shot with a basketball, agile and quick on the court, and could dribble the ball behind his back with ease. He played the drums with a local, professional R&B band around town, gigging in nightclubs and dance halls. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t draw, and would wile away time in class, when bored, with fantastically elaborate pencil drawings of faces and scenes. Of course, wouldn’t you know, he was as a good a student as he wanted or had to be, not spending any time, it seemed, studying. He was simply one of those guys, gifted by nature or God to excel in all things. Heshy, precisely ungifted, excelling in nothing, reflexively hated guys like that. But not Lanny, who everybody clamoured to be friends with. Lanny liked Heshy and they became good friends. Heshy felt Lanny’s friendship redeemed him.
Even more, Lanny was the first of them, the first of anyone Heshy knew, to be in love with a girl. They were in grade ten and the girl was a beauty, in grade twelve no less, with long black hair, round blue eyes, taller than Lanny, slender, with long legs. She carried herself as if she was royalty. Life’s natural aristocracy. Majesty in haunting loveliness. She reminded Heshy of Natalie Wood. That kind of beauty.
Heshy never met her or even knew her name. He never spoke with Lanny about her. He heard and believed that she worked part time as receptionist for a dentist and that Lanny used to go there after hours and get down with her on a fully reclined, red leather patients’ chair hour after hour in the dark, rainy Vancouver nights. He saw how she and Lanny would pass notes to each other in the hall. Once in grade ten science class, in which he was seated right beside Lanny, Heshy read one over Lanny’s shoulder, Lanny absorbed in what he read to himself not noticing:
“My Love, I love you so much. When I’m not with you, when I’m just home or with my friends or at work or in class or just doing anything away from you, I think of you always. I have two minds. My mind that does all things that I have to do and my real mind that never stops thinking of you so much that I feel you are with me, even when you’re not.”
Heshy, a virgin, without a girlfriend, not dating, wanted feelings like that coming from someone like her more than he wanted sex. He thought Lanny was made holy by them. Heshy hurt from the emptiness of their lack.
Tinsley, Heshy and Arne began going to watch Lanny practice with the band he drummed for. Henry C and Nightrain. And at 16, though still underage, they started going to see the band play, in dives, dance halls, low rung cabarets, places like The Smilin Buddha, Farradays, Danceland, The Bohemian Embassy. At the Buddha, you could for five bucks get your joint worked, never knowing whether by a woman or a tranny. No more North End princesses. The girls and women at these places were flat out raunchy and sexy. They wore tight, short skirts and skin tight sweaters. They made up their faces with mounds of cheap rouge, deep and thick eye liner and eye shadow, glossy red lipstick, hair bouffanted or bee hived, frosty stiff from hair spray. They wore cheap perfume and the smell mixed with their sweat drove Heshy crazy. They were unreachable by him but the odd time one of them would dance with him, giving him some hint of boiling, available sex.
A tall girl like that, a club goer in fact, was in Heshy’s class. Sal Breit, nicknamed “Tight Breit.” “That’s how hard it is to get into me,” Inches taller than Heshy, slender, long legged and slutty-pretty, with dirty blonde, teased hair, her glasses making her look even sexier. Strange to say, she liked Heshy in a sisterly way. They talked easily. And a lot. She loved black guys and told Heshy how she would meet them at clubs and parties and even take the odd trip to Seattle where the clubs were just wild. She sat beside him in grade eleven in a couple of classes. Heshy would see her some too at the clubs and dance halls he’d go to, his eyes intent on anybody, her eyes intent on the black guys.
Once Tinsley talked Sal into showing Heshy the dirty dog at Danceland. She socked her ass into his balls and cock and they started bumping and moving together with increasing rhythmic ferocity such that he thought he was going to come in his pants. His feelings transported him to some place he’d never been. And Sal, back and ass into him, laughed and teased him, knowing the feeling she was arousing in him, knowing he’d never danced like that before. Then they sat down and started talking, like usual, like brother and sister, or like two girl friends, except that, not knowing what was coming over him, Heshy stuck his mouth toward her to kiss her, his thin lips pursed slightly. She French kissed him so hard and so fully he thought his mouth was being hoovered up. He had to fight to open his own mouth to kiss her back the same way. They stuck their tongues into each other’s mouths. He’d never kissed a girl like that. No girl had ever before rubbed the high inside of his thigh.
After that, they got tighter at school, friendlier, looser and laughed about what had happened. They talked even more. Sal told him about living with an old aunt, her father’s sister, about having been kicked out the house by her father after pulling a knife on him, about her mother’s drinking, about her brother in and out of jail, and about one sister in Edmonton, a hair dresser, who’d gotten away from all that mess.
They both loved rhythm and blues. And Heshy would even go over to Sal’s house the odd Sunday afternoon when Sal was home and her aunt was away doing church work. They’d play records and gossip and talk. They spent hours like that. One time over there, they watched Tina Turner doing a show on TV, singing while she danced the carnal way she did.
Heshy, “Geez, that chick is sexy.”
Sal, “Blacks are sexy.”
“Her music is for sex.”
“That music is definitely for sex.”
“It’s the beat. It’s like the beat of fucking. Of course I wouldn’t really know much about that.” And Heshy told her about the first time he met Tinsley.
“Yeah. It’s like this.” She stood up and started moving her body, her hips to Tina Turner’s music.
Heshy laughing, “Stop that Sal.”
“Why Hesshhhyyyy?” Drawling.
“Because you’re driving me crazy.”
“C’mon boy, c’mon and get it.”
“Hold on I’m coming.” Laughing.
Sal, inches taller than Heshy, moving her body, rocking her hips, lips pouting, singing now, low and husky, “C’mon boy, c’mon and get it.”
Heshy said nothing. His face was red. He felt flushed. His cock was hard. Sal was moving, pouting, teasing and smiling at him. He got up and walked over to her, faced her, put his arms around her, and began a slow grind, even as Ike and Tina’s band was putting out a frantic beat. Sal ground back, still smiling and teasing. Then Heshy stopped and stood still, his arms still around her. Sal, smiling and teasing, stopped moving, and stood still, her arms around him. They stood pressed together as if in a frozen grind, not moving. Sal stopped smiling. Heshy turned his face up to hers put his palm on the back of Sal’s head and moved her face down to his. Sal kissed him before he kissed her, and for the first time since Danceland. They kissed each other hard. Probing, hungry, exploring kisses. Tongues straining and darting in each others’ mouths. Sal was bending her head down to kiss Heshy. Heshy was craning his neck up to kiss her. Heshy felt the room spinning some and he felt faint. He started losing his balance. She almost fell down with him. They righted themselves. Then they sat down on her aunt’s old, tweedy chesterfield, filled with fading green and pink roses. They sat and kissed some more. Then they lay down together, kissing and pushing their bodies into each other. Heshy felt bursting and like crying out.
Now Heshy was past the limits of his experience. He started touching Sal’s breasts under her sweatshirt. They felt hot and swelling. He put his fingers on her erect nipples. They were hard and pointy. He kissed her neck and lifted up her sweatshirt without talking it off. She undid her bra. He buried his face in her breasts and then started kissing them and then sucking her nipples. She took off her sweat shirt. She unbuttoned the top few buttons of his shirt and tried to pull it over his head. He stopped, sat up and took it off.
They took turns biting lightly, sometimes too hard, and sucking on each other’s nipples, then back to kissing, the thrill of his bare chest against her bare breasts singeing Heshy. Now she moved and moaned and pressed her body harder into him, moving her pelvis into his, over and over and rhythmically. Everything was fine and everything was on fire. Heshy kissed her stomach and stuck his tongue in her belly button, pressing his face into the softness of her stomach above her jeans. Then he straightened up and began kissing her on the mouth again, all his bare skin and bones and all his skin and bones under his clothes moving into her, moving into her, she moving back into him, kissing him too.
Then the unimaginable.
She started rubbing his cock outside his jeans. Then tugging at his belt, opening his pants, pulling down his zipper, hand inside his underwear on his joint, rubbing it slowly and lightly. He opened her unbelted jeans, no zipper, he pulled them down a little, enough to get his hand inside but not sure what to do with it. She took his hand close to her, guided and worked his finger inside her: “Just so, just like that, just there, just there. Oh, please, please, just there.” “Easy boy, easy, take it easy.”
He relaxed, stopped rubbing her hard, just curling his finger into her, where she had placed it before, just lightly. She kissed him and moaned and moved and smiled and teased him. They both took off their jeans, underwear and panties still on. He stuck his cock into her cunt as far as the last of their clothes would allow, just the tip of his cock nudging into her, feeling the soak coming from her. Skin and bone trying so hard to get inside her. He slipped his underwear off without moving the tip of his cock from the lips of her cunt and drove it against the shield of her panties, the tip of his cock going deeper and deeper, straining against the cotton, as far as he could push it. Then out.
She pushed him out.
She quickly took off her panties and guided his cock into her, both all naked except for their socks. Now on top of her, into her, into her, deep, deep, deep as he could push. He just lay there for a few seconds, as deep as he could get. “Geez, this is great, this is so great. I can’t believe this.” The tension in his cock unbearable, shuddering, him shuddering but not coming. He stopped kissing her. He put his head back, lying inside her, and looked at her. She looked back at him. She smiled and gave him little bird pecks on his face. Then again with the “C’mon boy, c’mon boy, get it, get it. Move real slow, in and out.” And he did. And in her, all nestled and warm and unbearably tense, he moved slow, in and back, in and back, each motion in a stab of pleasure and tension, each move back, each ebb, an instant of relaxation. The greatest feeling he ever had in is life. The greatest experience. Their tongues inside each others’ mouths, each trying to swallow up the other’s tongue. Heshy wanting to explode inside her, her telling him to wait for her, to not to. Her moaning and moving with him, not teasing anymore, not smiling anymore, he with wisdom beyond what he knew, and her with her doctorate, guiding him to move just so, just so fast, just so slow, just so. Her, now intense, “C’mon boy, c’mon, get it, get it, get it, get it, get it, oh please get it, get it, c’mon boy get it, oh God get it.” Him, nothing, maybe a “Yeah” or a sigh, deep breaths, just moving. Then her tightening up into him, her face all scrunched, “Oh boy, boy, oh boy, oh boy, c’mon boy, get it please, get it, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh!”
And then she looked at him, her eyes wide open, relaxed her body, and moved slowly under him, and again teasing and smiling and less urgently, “C’mon and get it. C’mon boy get it.” And he relaxed too, somehow knowing it was okay, that he didn’t’ have to hold back anymore, and he began hard thrusting into her, smashing his hips into hers, banging at her, smacking her with his pelvis, sweating and biting her neck and ears, and then it all spilled out of him in a rush that felt like his insides were pouring out him into her through his cock. His thighs shuddered in his lurch into her, and then he lay on top of her, limp and easy, floppy like a rag doll. And he just lay there with tiny shuddering pelvic aftershocks, moving just slightly from time to time. Then out and lying beside her. She hugged him like a sister would, smiling and teasing him and held him.
“Geez.” He felt great.
“Geez Sal, I love rock and roll.” Laugh, smile, relax.
“And ya’ know what else?”
“There is a God. This great shit! There just hasta’ be!”
Years passed. Although there were a lot of stories in those years, to Heshy, now 48, things were prosaic. Life rolled on, with more peaks and valleys for him than the average guy because he was excitable. In his bones he kept thinking and feeling that something extraordinary was going to happen to him. Something great. The prose would become poetry again. But, he asked himself, why should his adult life be so much better than anyone else’s? Who was he, after all: Errol Flynn; some great lover; some great genius; someone soaring above this earth? Nope. He was just another guy, he truly knew this, doing the best he could, falling short every day, every way. He wasn’t complaining. Things on balance were ok. “I mean,” he wondered, “what do the people I know do, what do most people do, not caught in the grip of terrible conditions: eat; sleep; work; drink; fuck; laugh; cry; worry; exercise; create little successes; suffer failures; breakdown; get older; get more frail; get tired; get sick; die?” But the buzz of the dream of something extraordinary kept up in his inner ear, at the back of his mind, as he thought about where all the best things were, when would they ever be found. And the buzzing was like the long-forgotten sound of something.
One freezing Friday Toronto winter night, trying to drive home from work, caught in a huge snow- storm, after a grueling day of a grueling week, in which he seemed to have fought with everybody, his wife, his brother who was his law partner, his secretary, his clients, judges, other lawyers, just everyone, Heshy’s mind was on the wander. “What is it with this litigation bullshit? Guys are like sharks. They stop caring about their clients. They just wanna’ fuck you up. Leave you dead, or at a minimum, seriously wounded. It’s all so fucking much about winning. What happened to what they told us in law school: “the adversarial process as the dialectical, even disinterested, search for truth, sharpened by the clash of opposing interests? Good luck with that bullshit. You grind away all day, and too many nights. Fight with everyone. Judge is either too stupid to understand, barking at you, as if you haven’t spent hours and hours trying to put everything together for him. Or judge is so smart he sees right through your crap. Also barking at you. Geez. Clients bitching when things go wrong. Or even when they go right. Costs too much. Shoulda’ been done sooner. Never happy. Everything to be done yesterday. Not so fast to pay you though. ‘Pay you for what, you fuck up? You never did what I told you. You never told me it would cost this much. You never told me I’d lose. You never told me I have to pay you even if I lose. Never told me I’d have to pay’, yelling now, ‘THAT OTHER ASSHOLE’S COSTS! Go fuck yourself, you money grubbing, ambulance chasing piece of human misery.’ I can’t sleep. Toss and turn. Worry about files. Worry about mistakes. Wake up in cold sweats. Panicking. ‘Geez, did I miss a limitation period.’ Worry about getting sued. Worry about everything. Bank line. Too busy. Not busy enough. Where’m I gonna’ get work? Fuckin’ deadbeats won’t pay. Fuckin’ receivables eating me alive. Go run a Goddamn law firm. Secretary pissed off. Partners pissed off. I’m pissed off. Wife mad at me. The lunatics who hire me! Some cunt wants me to go to court over an hour of weekend access. I can’t believe it. I told her to go fuck herself. Glad I did. Geez, I hope she doesn’t report me. Drink too much. Get home, go out, eat too much. Watch all hours of TV, half stoned just from being tired. Yell at my kids. Flop into bed. Twist, turn. Mind racing. Don’t wanna fuck. Not sure I can in this state. Wife’s getting as fat as me. Thank God it’s Friday. Me, I’ll watch TV, crawl into bed. Forget about shit. Sleep in inna’ morning. Maybe have a nice breakfast before I go in, try to clean things up.”
“Maybe now, whilst, yeah whilst, I proceed at two kilometers an hour, maybe I’ll just call up Lord Prolix :
‘ ‘Lo Lord. Howza’ common law these days? How’s equity treating you? And how are you and all the rest of the Lords doing, writing all those judgments in small print no one reads? Tell me Lord, you ever get tired? Ever give the legal machine a rest? I’ll tell ya’ Lord, you’re a mite too cheery and sunshiny for my taste. And oy vey, do you ever talk too much, torture every issue with good old positivist analysis. What about John Cage Lord? Ever hear of him? He had this theory of silence. Anyway, I thought I’d just call to say hello to you up there on Mount Olympus while I can barely manage to shlep myself home here on good old terra firma, barely manage to drag my sorry ass from A to B. Well, keep breathing in that rare legal air Lord. I’m going home to collapse and I hope I never have to read anything you ever write again, you legal-headed freak.’”
“Maybe now I’ll call The Honourable Justice Shrek. ‘Lo Judge. It’s me Azberg initial H. You know the guy you once said was about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Giving everyone but me a big fucking laugh. I was just chatting with Lord Prolix. You know him. Very cheery, very unflappable, even if something of a motor mouth. Nothing legal he can’t figure out. Not like you judge. He’s high on the common law air. You’re a Jewish brooder. No uplifting British legal horse sense floating through your reasons. Look Judge, truth is, you’re not such a hot writer. That Lord Prolix, he does go on and on, like, well, you know those guys, those Law Lords, how they talk, all like ‘Put this case’ and ‘Put that case.’ But at least he, them, most of them, write, what’s the word, ahh, clearly, like limpid. You can follow what they say, most times, if you’ve got the patience to sit through fifteen pages of prose in small type about a conditional sales contract or whatever. But you Judge, I’ve gotta’ say, and with all due disrespect, you’re as obscure as hell, and your prose reads like mangled barbed wire. Whaddya mean ‘Who the hell am I?’ Just cuz I’m a nickel and dime guy doing nickel and dime cases, who’s never sipped sherry with you, and never will, doesn’t mean I can’t speak my mind. I know I never chuckled between sips with you over some amusing anecdote pulled from the lore of the common law. I’m no white man Judge, just a tired, overweight, overworked Jewish divorce lawyer, getting yelled at by everybody, trying to do the best he can, which isn’t too good at all these days. Listen Judge. I know you’re a pretty tortured guy. Sitting in your den at 3 in the a.m. word is, your best friend, your dog, is lying by your feet, and your wife, the lady famous for her moustache, is snoring away in the bedroom, your eyes glistening, tears of joy no less, as you think about gratuitous bailment. Geez Judge, what a way to exorcise your demons. With the healing balm of the common law.”
And so it went, Heshy’s brain spinning these endless conversations, his car crawling through traffic, the harsh wind blasting snow across his windshield.
The wind rocked Heshy’s car. It sounded bone chilling. And he’d forgotten his boots and didn’t know how he was going to walk through the snow after he parked. He put the radio on and turned the dial. He heard Billie Holiday singing. He listened. Attentive. His brain stopped its spinning. But it wasn’t the singing that commanded his attention. How to describe what he listened to and heard? It was the saxophone, the playing. It ran easy, languid, romantic, lyrical, complementing the singing. The playing was beautiful and sad. And it moved so easily with the singing, as if the two, voice and sax, were dancing together, were a duet. It was as if the player and Billie Holiday had a familiar intimacy, were making a kind of musical love. As Heshy listened, he felt the tension, confusion and brain-spewn torrents easing out of him as he eased into the music, moving his head imperceptibly to the beat, as the singing and the playing moved over and under and around the beat and the melody. Then the announcer. It was an extended program on Lester Young. Then a series of tracks of him without Billie Holiday. And to Heshy, in that moment, the music seemed like it was everything. He heard hot, soaring improvisation moving with an urgent flow of ideas as if bebop had come to life in the thirties. And he heard lovely lyrical music, where the melodic line was always close, where the playing seemed as light as air, feathery, but not slight. And in it all, even in the buoyant improvising, Heshy heard an ineffable sadness. The other tracks, later ones, from the fifties. Now he heard tiredness in the playing, world weariness, sadness tinged with bitterness approaching coarseness. Heshy took all of this in as he made his slow way home.
Parking down the street some ways away from his house, the first spot he could find, Heshy was of two minds. One was refocused on his terrible work week and all the work he’d promised himself he’d do over the weekend, likely both days. The other was with what he’d just been listening to. Getting out of his car and headed into the deep, piled up snow, the wind assaulting him, blowing snow on him, his feet and pant legs immediately getting soaked to his shins. The snow got into his shoes soaking his socks and feet. The gust of wind in his face hit him so hard, he lost his breath and started coughing and gasping for air, turning his back to the wind and walking backwards into it to catch his breath. He followed the tire paths on the street from other cars when a car came barrelling towards him as he walked backwards. Scared of getting hit he stepped into a snow bank. Now the snow was up to his hips, drenching his pants. He couldn’t remember such cold, wet misery, his feet now seeming to start to freeze. He got back onto the tire path, and began stamping his feet on the ground to get some life back into them, to try to exorcise the freezing damp. He slipped and both his knees smacked the hard packed road. Blinding pain shot through him. Only a few feet from his house, he was tempted just to fall into the piled up soft snow at the side of the road and never get up. “No fucking way.” He roused himself to get up, then almost slipped again but caught himself.
Finally he was directly in front of his house. Nothing shoveled. House all dark. No one home. With what seemed to him like deep resolve, he forced his way, trudging through all the accumulated snow like an ocean around his house. He reached the front porch, a bit of a sanctuary from the howling wind. He took off his right glove and unbuttoned his coat to dig inside his suit pockets to find his house key. His fingers immediately felt stiff and pained from the intense cold. It seemed to take forever to locate the key and then to fish it out and fit it into the door lock and get the door open. He had to stop the operation just to put his hand inside his coat pocket to warm it. Finally he opened the door. He was inside his house. He put on a few lights. The phone was ringing. It was his wife. She’d given up on trying to get home. She’d stay at his mother’s with the girls. “Geez, yeah sure, whatever. Look, I just got in, and I can’t talk right now. Talk to you later.”
At last: some warmth and creature comfort. Heshy felt a little better now. He got tantric about it. He was slow taking off his soaked through clothes just to savour the anticipation of the pleasure of how good it would feel and to intensify that feeling when it finally came. He was deliberate. He carefully took off his coat and hung it up, then his suit jacket, folding it over a chair, then his tie. He kept his shoes, socks and wet pants on. He poured himself about two ounces of scotch, neat. He took a piss. The he walked around his house like an idiot trailing puddles of water after him. He finally took off his shoes, leaving his slushy socks on, as if doing a slow strip tease. Finally, scotch in hand, he went upstairs to his bedroom and sat on the bed in the dark and then as slowly and tantalizingly as he could manage, he, like a stripper teasing the crowd, took off one sock resting his near to frozen foot in the fat pile of the carpet, then the other. Then he stood up took off his pants, his shirt and his underwear. He got himself a thick towel and as if performing a rite dried himself off methodically bit by bodily bit. He put on a sweat shirt a fresh pair of underwear, sweat pants, and warm wool socks. The scotch was going down ever so warm and nice, his growing feeling of well being spreading all over him together with the warmth the house heat, the scotch and the fresh dry clothes brought.
Heshy had something on his mind.
He put on the radio and turned to the station playing the Lester Young tribute. The program was over. He went downstairs to his living room, remembering something. He flipped through his tapes, LPs and CDs. And lo and behold he found it: a bootleg used and well played LP from the fifties of Lester Young, titled Lester Leaps In, which still bore the adhesive sticker showing the price, $3.50, on the top right corner of the album cover. On the album’s cover were two enlarged photos of Lester Young, one of him standing, wearing an expensive looking, tan overcoat and his porkpie hat, playing his sax, the other of him sitting down on a brown wooden stool, wearing a beautiful looking dark suit, over a starched white shirt with an elaborate collar and broad red silk tie, full and long in its knot, and his pork pie hat, playing his sax. In both photos, his head was tilted to the side at about a forty five degree angle, his sax held tilted the other way. In both photos, Heshy saw in Lester Young an otherworldly look, his eyeballs floating at the tops of his eyes, seemingly gazing heavenward. He seemed dissociated from planet Earth, as though his music was traveling to outer space following the angle of the held sax, the gaze setting off a line of vision in the other direction, also outward bound.
Heshy reflected on the two photos, putting them together in his mind. He began to think that sound and vision weren’t ultimately moving in different directions away from each other, after all. No, he thought, they were travelling so far out that at a far distant point they curved back into each other till they merged as one, sound and vision, and returned to their source, somewhere deep inside Lester, as lungs, stomach, diaphragm throat, mouth, lips and soul again and again pushed the music into the reed, then into that weirdly curving metal, held as lightly and easily as if he were holding a piece of driftwood. Each line of sound, Heshy imagined, contained within it all previous lines, the way the line of a poem contains everything as it goes, and so grows richer and fuller, even in the breaks and silences, as it moves along. And Lester—now his friend, now in Heshy’s mind not Lester Young, but just rather Lester—looked so sad, so beat up, yet so ethereal, as if the sound leaving him through his horn, was slipping away to its eventual end, like water running through his hands, cool and comforting, there, then gone.
So Heshy sat for a while, transfixed by the album cover and his imaginings about it. Then, with the tiniest of starts, he got up, walked over to put the record on, and waited a second or two till the music started, then sat down again, leaned back, stretched his legs, and closed his eyes. He just listened and drifted with the music. And the buzzing in Heshy’s inner ear and at the back of his mind, that constant tiny noise, stopped, as if some inner alarm clock got turned off. Heshy began to feel repose. He knew in one of his minds that nothing had really changed but, still and always of two minds, he also began to feel that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“Lady Az ,” Lester said, “you just sit back. Give your own self a rest.”
“Relax Lady Az, I’m going to sing you a song.”
Itzik Basman (pictured here on the right at age 15 in Vancouver) is a lawyer living in Toronto. Basman studied English Literature at UBC, getting his Masters degree. He wrote his thesis on the early to middle novels of Mordecai Richler, now published at Lulu.com. Basman wrote an interpretive study of Hamlet which you can also find at Lulu.com.