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Finding the Blues

"A friend wants to know why his best friend committed suicide in search of the Blues"
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Views 1.1k
Read Time 27 min
Published 9 years ago
Jason’s suicide shattered our lives. We had no clue. None of us knew what was going on. I was his best friend ever since 2 nd grade at Sherman Elementary School. We went to Hidden Valley Camp in Maine every summer, played little league baseball and damn it, we spent almost every day together, so how could I not know what was going on? Why would he hang himself?

At the cemetery when they were burying him, I couldn’t keep my eyes off his mom and dad, the perfect parents. Dr. Mednick was Chief of Staff at Jefferson Hospital. His mother owned the Fairwinds Flower Store in town and was on the school board. She was shaking and sobbing, leaning against her husband and holding their daughter, Myra close to her.

Jason said they were great parents and how easy it was to talk to them. They went on camping trips together and last summer they spent three weeks in France and Italy going to art museums. Jason said it was a perfect vacation because they let him wander off when he wanted. He loved that they trusted him. He told me he went into the old parts of Rome and Paris, down dark alleys and saw parts of the city that most tourists don’t see. His parents did not know where he spent several afternoons. He told me he loved danger and that he saw a side of humanity in those back streets and alleys that fascinated him and he wanted to know more. “I have to know more! I have to understand!” he said almost fiercely. I wasn’t sure what he meant and it was something we never talked about again. But it was two weeks after he returned from France that Jason started going into New York for guitar lessons every Saturday.

Before that, he fooled around on the guitar he got when he was twelve. He didn’t take lessons and taught himself some chords and learned a few songs, but then he would go weeks without playing the guitar. Then suddenly, after they got home from their trip, he became obsessed with learning to play the blues and listening to the old delta blues musicians.

His parents bought him a fairly new Subaru for his senior year. His girlfriend, Sandy was beautiful and really talented. They seemed to have fun together and always had deep conversations about philosophy and music. She played violin in the school orchestra and they often went into New York to concerts. She said he seemed fine when they were together but recently seemed to go deeper into him self, suddenly get quiet and spend more time in his room practicing the guitar, but she didn’t think anything of it. She did mention one thing that seemed strange. She said he asked for a lock of her hair a few weeks ago but wouldn’t say why yet seemed eager to have it.

Jason got accepted early admissions to Wesleyan. He was going to take a year off and go to Nepal and India and his parents were fine with that. He had the perfect life. So why did he go and hang himself in the basement? Why the note tucked under the strings on his guitar, “Trapped! There’s no way out.”

When the news spread through school on Monday that Jason killed himself, classes were called off and they had an assembly. No one could believe it. Why would someone who seemed to have the perfect life hang himself? They brought in counselors so we could break down into small groups. I left school after the assembly. I asked his parents if I could sit in Jason’s room. They said they were fine with that.

I wanted to be where he spent his last hours. I wanted to see if I could feel what he was thinking. What did he mean, “There’s no way out?” Why did he feel trapped? What did he want out from? Was he in trouble? I had to know.

I sat on his bed and looked around the room. Jason’s guitar was on the floor next to his bed and that’s where the note about being trapped was found. He had a great CD collection which he kept organized in alphabetical order, loads of books about the musicians and history on neatly lined shelves, posters of black blues musicians like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Honey Boy Edwards, photographs of juke joints. On the floor next to his bed, a book about Son House lay open. He said he wanted to go to Mississippi to see the old juke joints in person, to see where the blues originated. He wanted to see the houses where the blues players lived. He became obsessed with the blues.

Jason didn’t talk much about his music lessons. He was the only one I knew who listened to that kind of music. I’m not sure what it was but something was changing with him. He spent hours in his room listening to those records, playing his guitar, writing songs but never sang one to me. Though we hung out and our times together were good, now that I think about, it was a little strained. He would get quiet like he was far away and I just thought it was because we’d be graduating soon and starting a new chapter. It was subtle so I just shoved it out of my mind.

Once I asked if I could go to the city with him and he said no in a sharp, angry voice that surprised me. He never said no if I asked him to do something. When I asked him why he didn’t want me to go, he just said his day in the city was his space. It was too special. He needed it.

“What do you mean you need it?” I asked.

“Drop it!” he said. “Just drop it!”

I remember looking at his face and felt this funny silence you feel after thunder and just before lighting comes. His eyes looked fierce. It frightened me. I never asked him about New York again.

Searching his room, I found a card on his desk that said, Amos Lexington Guitar Teacher. It had the address, 1523 Amsterdam Avenue but no phone number. I picked it up and on the other side, written in pencil in Jason’s writing was Broody’s Bar. I stared at the card then put it in my pocket. What was Broody’s Bar?

I decided I’d go and find out if his guitar teacher knew what was going on with Jason. What did he mean, “the city was his space, he needed it?” What was special? What did he need?”

On Saturday, the week after Jason died, I went to New York and found Amos Lexington’s guitar studio. It was in Harlem and I remember feeling strange and apprehensive walking down the bustling street from the subway looking for the address, aware that I was the only white person. I entered the old brick building and stood in front of the row of buzzers with about a dozen names and pushed the button next to his name and the number 313 and waited for the buzzer to let me in, hoping he was home. The entranceway was small with mailboxes next to the row of buzzers. While waiting for the buzzer, I looked around at the peeling green paint and a pile of old newspapers in the corner. I pushed the buzzer again and finally heard a voice come through a little speaker, “Who’s ringin’?” I went to the speaker, “I’m a friend of Jason, one of your students.”

A low, gravelly voice said, “Oh yeah, Jason, Well, come on up then,” I heard a buzzer go off and I opened the door and walked the three flights to Amos’s apartment. The stairs were dirty, white paint was peeling on the walls and there were cracks and places on the ceiling where the plaster fell off exposing wood slats. The hall was dark and smelled like urine and beer. The only light came from a dangling light bulb in the middle of the hall. It was hard to see the numbers on the doors. Just then a door at the end of the hall opened and a small black man looked out and waved me towards him. He went back in and left the door opened.

I stood at the open door before entering, wondering how Jason ever found this guitar teacher. Amos’s world was so different than our world on Long Island, but this is where Jason came every Saturday. I had no idea when he said he was taking guitar lessons in New York that it was in a dilapidated old apartment building in Harlem. He never talked about it. The room was cluttered with piles of newspapers and magazines. A bottle of Jack Daniels and a half empty glass sat on top of a pile of records. An ashtray filled with cigarette butts and ashes was on the floor next to big worn out brown chair. I saw a beat up old guitar leaning against the wall in the corner. The paint on the head of the guitar under the strings was all scratched away. Amos stood on the other side of the room in front of a window with the shades down. No light came into the dark room.

He was a tiny skinny black man with a pencil thin mustache. He wore baggy gray pants held up by black suspenders and a tee-shirt with ketchup stains. He was bald except for a little patch of fuzzy white hair above his ears and had a toothpick dangling from the side of his mouth.

“Why you here, boy?” he asked, squinting.

“Did you know Jason hung himself?” I asked.

He bit his lip, looked down, shaking his head from side to side, “Damn, Ida done got another one.”

“Ida. Who’s Ida? What do you mean?”

Amos just looked up at me, put his hand on the top of his head, but did not speak. He looked hard at me, squinting as if trying to see something in me. “Jason had a feel for the blues,” he said. “He was a natural and was gettin’ close, too close.”

“What are you saying? What do you mean he was getting close, close to what?”

“He was a black man in a white boy’s body,” Amos said, nodding, looking me in the eyes. “He was gettin’ close to the sound, the growl, the pain.”

“What did you mean Ida got him? You said Ida got him. What’s that about?”

“You don’t want to go there, boy.” Amos said. He leaned closer to me and looked me in the eye. “You best listen to me.”

Jason left a note that said, “Trapped. There’s no way out.”

Amos sighed and moved the toothpick in his mouth to the other side.

“I want to know what happened to Jason,” I said. I took the card out of my pocket and asked, “Where’s Broody’s Bar?”

“Broody’s ain’t no place for a boy like you,” Amos said. “Stay away.”

“Did Jason go there?”

“Yeah, I told him ‘bout Broody’s cause it’s the closest to a juke joint there is in New York.”

“Jason said he wanted to go to juke joints in Mississippi.”

“I know,” Amos said, “that’s why I told him ‘bout Broody’s, but I warned him ‘bout Ida. She’s the owner. I said to him like I’m saying to you to stay away from there, but he went anyway and I knew he would. He had to find out and he went there on Saturdays after his lesson to listen to the blues.”

“Where is it?” I asked. He turned away from me, walked to the window and moved the window shade. “It’s down to the corner,” he said, motioning me to come to the window. He stepped aside and pointed.

I saw the bar on the corner across the street with a sign shaped like a guitar and the word, “Broody”s crudely printed.

“I’ve got to go there,” I said.

Amos nodded, squinting at me, his face close to mine. I could smell the bourbon on his breath. “Don’t go there,” he said. “I’m sorry now I told Jason ‘bout it, but he had the blues in him. He had to go, you don’t need to. An’ I’m tellin’ you now boy, you’d do best to stay away from Ida.”

“Thanks for the warning,” I said, “but Jason was my best friend and I have to find out why he hung himself.”

Amos sighed and shook his head looking at me. I glanced away and noticed an old book on the floor. It had a black cover and in red print I saw the title, Blues and the Devil. I stared at it and Amos caught my eye looking at it but didn’t say anything.

“What’s that book?” I asked. “What does the blues have to do with the devil?”

Amos took a deep breath and rubbed his chin, “Do you listen to the blues?” he asked.

“No,” I answered, glancing down at the book then back at Amos.

“Well it wouldn’t do any good to tell you ‘less you listen to the blues.”

“Did Jason know about what’s in that book?” I asked.

“Yeah and he knew the whole story ‘bout Robert Johnson at the crossroads and other stories,” Amos said. “He read that book about three weeks ago when it was raining out and asked if he could stay awhile until it stopped then he went over to Broody’s.”

I wanted to ask him more about Jason and the book, but he said he had a student coming and he wanted to rest up.

“I’ve got to go to Broody’s,” I said.

Amos looked at me, shaking his head from side to side. He took a deep breath, gave a little grunt but didn’t speak.

I shook Amos’s hand. He walked slowly to the door and opened it. “I can’t stop you,” he said. “But Broody’s ain’t no place for a white boy like you. I’ll tell you one more time, “Stay away!”

I walked down the dark hall, noticing my shadow on the wall from the dangling light bulb. The stairs creaked and the railing was wobbly. When I walked out the front door and stood on the sidewalk, I looked up at Broody’s across the street on the corner. I then looked up and saw Amos at the window, holding the window shade aside. When our eyes met, he let go of the shade and I felt my heart beating and felt shaky all over. I closed my eyes.

“Maybe I should just get out of here,” I thought. I looked at Broody’s, noticing the windows were painted black and the guitar shaped sign.

“That’s no place for a white boy,” came to my mind, but I had to know what was going on with Jason, who was Ida and what did Amos mean, “Ida got another one.” What did Jason mean, “I’m trapped? There’s no way out.”

I walked up the busy, noisy street, cars and trucks going in opposite directions, horns honking, a siren in the distance, a bus stopping at the corner. Stores were on both sides of the street. A dress shop, a hardware store, a pizza shop and next to that a barbecue restaurant and I could smell the food coming out of the open door and a sign painted on the window, “Best ribs in town” and another sign, “Soul Food.”

It was a busy Saturday afternoon and I felt odd and out of place with people glancing at me as they rushed by. “What am I doing here?” I thought as I made my way to the corner and waited for the light to change.

I crossed the street and stood in front of Broody’s. I looked up at the sign and tried to look in the windows even though they were painted black. I stood in front of the door for a minute. Suddenly, it opened and two black men came out, one of them holding up the other obviously too drunk to walk. The man holding the drunk looked at me and shook his head like he was angry and pushed me aside so he and his partner could stagger by. I stared at the front door trembling, not sure if I could do this but then closed my eyes, took a deep breath and opened the door.

The room was dark. It smelled of smoke. There was a pool table on one wall and a long bar on the other. It was empty except for a man with his head down on a table top, a glass in his hand and at another table in the back, a man and woman drinking and talking. A small stage was in the corner with an upright piano, a few wooden chairs and two microphones folded up against the back wall. The only sound was a guitar playing from a speaker over the bar. The music was slow and then a harsh growling voice came, singing some words I couldn’t understand.

At the end of the bar I saw a fat black woman slicing lemons. She had a purple bandana on her head and big round golden colored earrings and a large Christian cross around her neck. She looked up and saw me then went back to her slicing lemons. I walked over to her. She turned to me and asked, “What you doin’ in here?”

“Are you Ida?” I asked.

“Who wants to know?” she said, picking up a cigarette from the ash tray.

“Me,” I said. “My name’s Ben. Did you know Jason?”

“Jason,” she repeated his name then nodded. “Jason. Yeah that white blues boy Amos sent over.” She smiled, “What about him?”

“He hung himself last week,” I said.

“He did,” she said, putting down her knife then wiped her hands on a dish towel. She shook her head from side to side then started nodding like she understood something and grunted, “So why you here, boy?

“I found a card on his desk with Broody’s Bar written on the back so I wanted to know what happened. There was a note that said, “I’m trapped.”

Ida just looked at me then picking up her cigarette took a deep drag letting the smoke come out her nostrils. She then put out her cigarette, twisting it into the ashtray already filled with cigarette butts and stood up. She took a deep weary breath, shaking her head, “Come with me.”

I followed her to the back of the bar, past a pool table, noticing a dart board on the wall on the other side of the room. She waddled because she was so fat and wore a dark baggy green dress that came down to her ankles. She opened a door and waved me into a small dark room that smelled of incense. I couldn’t place the smell but thought it was cinnamon or chocolate. She flicked a switch and a red light from a floor lamp in the corner came on giving the small room an odd reddish glow. Ida closed the door and looked at me without speaking then went around the room lighting candles.

The dim redness from the lamp blending with the flickering candle light felt eerie causing my throat to contract. That’s when I saw six or seven small black dolls dangling from the ceiling just above where I was standing. Freaked out, I stared at them for a moment till Ida said, “take a seat” and waddled over to the other side while I glanced around the dark room and saw a small brown couch with worn out cushions. I didn’t feel like sitting and looked up again at the dolls above my head then watched Ida walk over to a small round table in the corner. I noticed a cluttered desk on one side, a grey filing cabinet against the wall and in the dark corner, the small round table with more candles. When Ida lit those candles, I saw what looked like two chicken feet hanging from a string over the table. I didn’t know what to think, staring at the dolls, the yellow bony legs and claws. In the center of the table was something that looked like a big rattle. It was black and looked like it was made from some kind of skin or leather. Leaning against the table was a thick wooden pole with a carved snake wrapped around from the bottom ending at the top with its mouth wide open its tongue sticking straight out, its fangs looking like it was about to strike.

Ida stood in front of me, looking into my eyes. “Jason heard the blues,” she said. “He heard the cry behind the blues, the sound of hell, the devil’s music and wanted to play the blues he heard because he knew his life was not real, not honest. He wanted to know the truth and sing the raw truth. He wanted to play the devil’s music. I heard him play his guitar and knew he was getting close, maybe too close. I never heard a white boy play the blues like that.”

“This is crazy,” I managed to say. “What are you talking about? I’ve known Jason since we were kids. We were like brothers. What do you mean he heard the devil’s music?”

Ida went to a cabinet and picked up a small blue bottle from the shelf. He chose to drink the potion,” she said, turning the bottle in her hand, no one forced him.

“What’s the potion? What happens?” I asked.

“See the dolls around the room. Jason’s soul, his spirit is now in the doll above your head.” I looked up.

“This is nuts,” I said. “You killed him with that potion.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “He wanted to go to the music. He wanted the truth of the blues. He chose to go and find what he needed and I helped.”

“He was happy,” I said. “He told me he loved his life. Was he lying?”

“No he wasn’t lying, but he wasn’t being honest either.” Ida said. “He wanted more. He knew his life wasn’t honest. He knew there was something in him that had to get out. He felt the rawness of the truth. He heard it in the music and wanted to go to the crossroads.

“Why did you give him the potion?”

“I warned him what could happen but he insisted and paid me the money to get the potion and gave me the lock of his girl friend’s hair for the ceremony.

“He gave you a lock of her hair, Sandy’s hair,” I said, remembering she told me that he wanted her hair.

“Yeah, it was an offering to Papa Legba before drinking the potion.

“Papa Legba? Who’s that?”

“Papa Legba, he be the guardian of the gates to his ancestors and the crossroads. He wanted to go to his origins and I am his Mambo.

“Mambo, what’s that?”

“I’m chosen by our ancestors to help folks find their way back. This potion takes you to the place where all can be seen and known. This is what I gave him. It takes you back to the beginning, back to the Congo, back to where he was from.”

“What are you talking about? What do you mean back to the Congo?”

“He wanted to find the blues. He wanted to play it, to live it, sing it, to tell the truth. The potion took him to where our people came from, back to the Congo, back to the jungles, back to the blues and he could never get back.”

I looked up at the ceiling, at the dolls dangling. I saw a tray of pins on the shelf behind Ida.

“Why did Jason hang himself? What did he mean he was trapped? He said there was no way out. What did the potion do?”

Ida put the bottle back on the shelf and picked up the tray of pins. She went to the doll above my head. “Do you want to feel Jason?”

“What do you mean, feel Jason?

She reached up and took the woolen doll down. It was about six inches long wrapped in black cloth and its arms were out to the side. It looked like it was stuffed with straw or cotton.

“Jason’s here,” she said. She stuck the pin in the doll’s arm. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my arm, felt an ache in my throat, felt a cry burning. “How did you do that?

Just then a big black man with a red bandana wrapped around his head opened the door. He had a long earring dangling from on ear. “Do you want me, Ida,” he asked. She put up her hand, indicating she wanted him to be quiet.

Ida looked at me and smiled. “So you want to know why Jason hung him self? Why he felt trapped in his life? Why he wanted to find in the blues?”

“You murdered him. You lured him to your crazy world.”

“No I didn’t,” Ida said.

“Amos said, Ida got another one,” I said. “What’s that mean?”

“Jason came to me. He was drawn to me. He played the blues for me. I never heard a white boy play like that and I heard the sorrow and pain in his voice. He knew too much, saw too much but he wanted to know more.” Ida stopped and shook her head. She bit her lower lip like she was trying to hold back from crying. “He was getting close to the blues, to the darkness, to the danger. I warned him. I told him he was going where a white boy shouldn’t go. I told him he had to turn back.”

“This is crazy,” I said. “What did you do to Jason?”

“He begged me to give him the potion in this blue bottle. He knew about the crossroads and wanted to go there. He wanted to go to the real truth, the rawness. He knew his life was not honest. That he wasn’t being true to what he knew from the blues. He knew he was trapped, a black man in a white boy’s body. He knew about Papa Legba and the Daballah Wedo,” Ida said.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Voo doo,” Ida said. “You must be a good friend to want to know what happened to Jason,” she added, narrowing her eyes. She came closer and looked into my eyes.

“I have to know. He was my best friend and I want to know why he hung himself. I have to know.”

Ida was silent as she looked into my eyes. She then walked over to the table with the chicken feet hanging. She picked up the rattle and came back to me and without a word, started shaking the rattle over my head.

“So you want to know what Jason knew, why he felt trapped and knew his life was not honest?” she said, holding the rattle over my head.

Suddenly, I wasn’t sure. I felt my throat tighten. I was trembling. I tried to swallow but couldn’t. The sound of the rattle over my head and the way Ida looked at me when she asked if I really wanted to know what Jason knew suddenly made me want to get away from her and run.

“If you want to know I can take you there. If you are truly his friend and want to know you must drink this potion and you will see what Jason saw,” she said, smiling then she nodded to the man and he grabbed me, holding my arms with his rough hands. Ida poured the potion into a small glass. “Drink this and you will know what Jason saw. You’ll know why he felt trapped. What he found in the blues. You will know the real Jason.”

She held the glass to my lips while the man held me. “No I don’t want to go there. I want to get out. I’m afraid. Leave me alone.”

“This potion will take you to the crossroads and you can go with Papa Legba through the gates. You will go where Jason went, but there’s no way back.”

“No! No! I don’t want to go.”

The big man held my arms. Ida held the potion to my lips. “Drink this,” she said. “Go to your friend and he will tell you what he knows then you will know.”

I was squirming in the big man’s arms, but he gripped me tighter. I had to get out of there. Suddenly, I kicked the man’s leg as hard as I could and he let go. I knocked the glass from Ida’s hand and ran out the door, through the bar and to the street.

The sun hurt my eyes as I ran from the dark bar. I ran down the street but happened to glance up and saw Amos looking down at me from his window. I ran to the subway and finally felt safe when the train doors closed.

That night in bed I thought about Amos, Ida and Jason. I looked around my room at my books, my computer, my CDs, my clothes, the picture of our little league team, the Beatles poster, my tennis racquet. I wondered whether my life was honest and what Jason heard in the blues. What truth? I couldn’t sleep. I got up and went to my desk and picked up the card with Amos’s name. I turned it over and looked at the word Broody’s Bar in Jason’s hand writing. I thought about Ida and the potion that Jason took to find the blues. I opened my desk drawer, put the card there and knowing I would never have the courage to find out why he hung himself, slammed the drawer shut.

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