"My Sweet Baby." It wasn't until I visited a club in Houston that I heard the song sung whole. "My sweet baby, gonna do her right. My sweet baby, gonna do her all night," were two lines that gave the true feel of what the song was about. I remember the rest of the words, but I've never said any of them out loud, and I'm not going to say any of them now.
The singer's name was Joe Brown, a common name on an uncommon man. He was probably the darkest man I have ever seen. His darkness made his teeth almost seem to glow through his ever-present smile. He was a small man, five feet four, one hundred twenty pounds. He wore his hair with the process all the fellows in the city seemed to wear. He had fine facial features, with clear, smooth skin. He was loud, and he always was in the middle of whatever crowd he was a part of.
I was trying to make something for myself as a guitar player. I was between bands and struggling to keep myself going. I was always between bands, even more than ever with a band. I couldn't seem to find a situation that was right for me. I really felt the need to be in a band. I needed to belong, I guess. I was young—tall, thin, and light-skinned—and self-conscious about everything I saw myself as being. I think I decided I wouldn't fit in with a band before even giving myself and the band a fair try. Guys were in and out of bands, I knew, and it seemed to be alright with most of them; but my always having to look for another band, always having to look for a home, was wearing on me hard. It was like repeatedly going from church to church.
I got a job cleaning up—bussing tables, washing dishes, mopping the floors, cleaning the restrooms, cleaning whatever needed cleaning—at one of the few clubs where they didn't know me. The club was known as one of the last stops on the music circuit. The musicians playing there had been around a long time. Most had traveled all over Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, a few having traveled aways up north. Some had done well, some had not. Some had grown too old to travel, others just not wanting to travel and be away from home. It was a club for musicians who were settled. I wasn't settled, and I was quite a bit younger than most of the guys who usually played there. I didn't know any of them, and none knew me.
Guys would show or not show up, and it was accepted that sometimes the band would start with only one or two people on stage. This wasn't the crowd for someone trying to find his way up, but sometimes it takes a step down to keep yourself moving up. I went there looking to play guitar and found out they had a job of another kind open. I walked into the club mid-afternoon and walked up to the bar.
The man behind the bar asked, "can you start here tonight? be here about an hour before we open? we open about 6."
Without giving his questions any thought, I just nodded my head and said, "yes, I can start tonight. I should be here about 5?"
Joe was the leader of the usual band—whatever band showed up to be led—at this club. I had been working there for close to a year, cleaning up after other people. In that kind of job, you have to close your mind off to what you are doing and just think about the money you will get paid and what you are going to do with it. The room I had in a couple's house, the meal out I had every Saturday, the other everyday expenses I had to pay; cleaning up after folks paid for all that.
When Joe's band rehearsed, they rehearsed before I usually showed up for work. One of the other guys who cleaned mentioned to me in passing that the band showed up to rehearse in the middle of the day and sometimes let other guys sit in with them. When we left at night, the club was usually clean. I showed a bit early a few times and noticed someone had been drinking there. I asked the other guy about the glasses, and the guy said his bit about the band showing up before we did.
I started showing up early to watch the band rehearse. Joe's band would take the stage and sit in a circle. Other guys who weren't a part of the band would sit back outside the circle and wait their turn; Joe would pick a couple of them and offer to let them sit in for a song or two. He sometimes offered to let one of the guys who sat in go on stage before an audience with them. "That was fine. Show up 'round seven or eight, and you can try your play before a crowd." Folks came and went, and he seemed to keep a list of who he could call if he needed someone on the spot. I started bringing my guitar, and I'd sit quietly off to the side, watching, listening. After several of their rehearsals, Joe noticed me.
"What you got there, son?"
"It's a guitar in the case.."
"You playing here, or are you looking for a band to play in? You've been sitting with that case for several days, haven't you?"
On the weekends, other bands would come in to play after Joe's band had done their bit. I was never in any of them. I'd never taken the stage here. I noticed the other guys who showed up hoping to take the stage with this band were mostly younger, like me. I wasn't sure of what to make of the contrast, an older band that was relaxed and comfortable in their manner, offering to let younger musicians sit in with them. Problem was the music they played probably wasn't what a younger crowd wanted to hear. I guess the other younger guys were like me, with nowhere else to go.
"I've been playing around a bit, but I'm not playing with anyone now. I'm just waiting for my time to come."
"Waiting for your time to come? I won't even ask you what you mean by that. Let's see what you got, son."
I sat in for the first time of several while they were rehearsing. The last time I sat in, he figured he'd heard enough of my playing. He stopped the band and stared at me. He shook his head.
"What are you playing at son?" he asked.
"What you all play is a bit different from what I learned to play, but I'm trying to catch on. I've been playing around here in Houston for the past couple of years. I've been in and out of a few bands."
"What kind of music you been playing? What kind of bands you been playing in? I don't know if I ever heard any playing like that, but if I have, not sure I want to hear any of it again. Your playing ain't bad, it just ain't any good either. Sit there and listen to my band play. It's a whole 'nother thing from what you are trying to play at.
"Half the time you are ignoring what we are playing. If you are trying to play with a band, you have to keep with the changes, play soft when you need to play soft. You have to really listen to what we are playing. I've played with other cats like you. You cain't listen; you cain't hear past what you are playing. You ain't the only one up here playing."
I really liked what they were playing, but I couldn't feel it to play it. I learned to play sitting in front of a radio with a guitar in my lap. I had to be more of the band than playing with others would allow. Most of the time, I probably ignored what was playing on the radio and just let my music take me wherever it took me. I couldn't lay back and let others move the songs along a bit. I overplayed when I should have been underplaying. I didn't want to play or be a part of any playing that was anything other than what I wanted to play.
Joe never offered to let me sit in with his band in rehearsal again, and he never offered to let me sit with them before an audience. I listened to their rehearsals for two or three weeks and backed it up with me sitting in my room practicing what I thought I was learning. I could feel myself getting more and more tense every time I sat down to play, more and more lost.
I stopped going to clubs to listen to music. I'd show up and not even hear the music, even though it still played. I'd do my job and then leave a couple of hours after closing.
For the first time in my life, I didn't hear music in my head. I could tap my foot along or move my head with the beat when I'd try to listen to it, but when I picked up my guitar to play, nothing came to me. I'd sit looking at my hands, waiting for my right hand to work the fretboard and my left hand to start picking or strumming the strings. Both hands sat motionlessly, holding onto the guitar with the frozen desperation that a drowning man holds onto a free-floating log.
Time passed with me just struggling to keep myself going when I ran into Joe in the men's room one night. I was mopping; he was doing his business. I ignored him and hoped he'd do the same with me. He didn't.
"Found your life's calling, I see," is what he said.
I looked at him but didn't say a word. I then looked away and resumed what I was doing.
"Where you been playing?" he asked.
I still didn't respond. What was I to say, "what music I had in me was gone?" I sure as hell wasn't going to say that. I thought about what to say in response to his question but came up with nothing.
"You still playing, ain't you? I can't hear no music coming out of that mop you're playing. You played some interesting stuff, you know. Jest wasn't right for my band. Took me years to get to the sound I have with my band now. You know how long it took me to work my way up to playing in top-flight joints? joints a hell of a lot better than this? It took me years. All told, I been playing and singing for forty years. Twice as long as you been alive. I been down so many times, I lost count. Still, I keep on comin' back. If I had a dime for every time some bastard told me I wasn't no good, I'd be owning a place like this instead of trying to make a living playing in one. I meant what I said by you not being no good. But I never said you couldn't get no better."
I looked at him again. He gave me a smile and a nod of his head. I responded in the same fashion. He left, and I stood there thinking about what he had said and trying to figure out what exactly he had meant.
After work, I went back to my room, turned on my radio, and laid down. I laid there trying to really take in the music that was playing, trying to really feel it, but it was too far away from what I grew up listening to, too far away from where my heart was, I guess. I really liked what I was hearing; I couldn't imitate it, though; I couldn't join in. I picked up my guitar and started to play along. I easily got into what I was playing. I realized though, that what I was playing didn't fit with what I heard on the radio. I turned the radio off. I started patting my foot at a fast pace. My head soon began to accompany the foot tapping. I soon remembered what had originally started me playing, the desire to lose myself in the music, the desire to leave this world.
I showed up for Joe's band's rehearsal the next day. Actually, the rehearsal was really more of an excuse for the men to get together and get half-drunk before they had to play. They'd quickly go over some of what they were going to play, but a lot of what they played was chosen at the time of playing. Most had been around so long they knew all the songs, and all the preparation they needed was for Joe to call out the song's name.
I never drank with them. My job cleaning up after the club closed provided motivation enough for me to stay sober. I sat at one of the tables that bordered the stage. Joe went over the chord changes to a couple of the songs that were new to the band he'd be playing with that night. When he put the band on break, he came over to me.
"I see you didn't bring your guitar. Good!" he said with a smile. He reached out his hand to me, and we shook. "You ever thought about going out on your own, starting your own band? You still might be a bit young, but that's the direction you should be thinking. Get yourself a band together and make them adjust to what you play. It's going to be tough for you to find work as a sideman, I think. You might have the talent to turn folks on to what you really want to play, though. Not really sure, but on your own is the way you should go."
All the while he was talking, he was working his hands open and closed. His hands caught my attention as much as the words he was saying. He noticed me looking at his hands.
"Arthritis. I used to could pick a pretty mean guitar myself. Bad days now, I can barely pick up one. It happens to old folks like me. You probably knowed folks with this thing; you just might not have known what it was."
I nodded my head to show that I understood what he was saying. I wasn't real comfortable to see him having trouble with his hands, and I didn't dare ask him anything about them. Mostly when he performed, he'd sit on a stool with a guitar sitting on his lap. He'd sing, and every now and then, he'd play some guitar.
"You're a good singer, though. That gets you by nicely," I said.
He smiled and nodded his head. "I sing alright. Even my voice is starting to get a bit frayed, though."
"How old were you when you had your first band?"
"I was eighteen or nineteen. I had been performing since I was fifteen or so. I got throwed out of this band I was in, and I decided that was the last time I was going to get throwed out of a band. I used to have some pretty good licks.
"Most of the bands in St. Louis wanted me to play with them. I tried to play with most of them too. I'd get an offer from one band and just up and quit the band I was with right there, no notice, I'd just not show up. I didn't have enough sense to know that wasn't the way it was done. You can't just quit on a band with no notice and leave them high and dry, not if you want to stay in the same town and play the same clubs. I didn't have the sense to know that then, though.
"Anyways, I'd pretty much been through the bands in St. Louis, and word got out about me. Folks were saying I was unreliable; I couldn't be counted on. Bands there weren't like this one where guys could show up or not, and it wasn't no big deal. Them bands all thought they was headed somewhere. At least they was trying to get somewhere.
"I showed up for a gig one night, and the band leader, a man named Sonny Jones, called me aside. He said that he'd heard about me jumping from band to band. He said that he was the one who decided for his band, who came and went and when they came and went. He said I was good, but not good enough for him to take the chance of my up and quitting on a whim. He told me I needed my own band. He said I needed to find out about unreliable sorts, such as myself. He said the word was out about me and that I probably wouldn't be able to find a job there in St. Louis.
"Hell, folks came and went as they pleased all the time; it must have been something about me that folks had a problem with. It's not exactly the same as being run out of town, but something else I must have done got me banned from playing in the clubs, I figure. It could've been a lot of things I did. I did plenty. I could always charm a woman out of her clothes, people out of money; I did plenty. Some people liked me, some people didn't."
Like I said, he had the charm of a demon.
"I didn't much care for St. Louis anyway, so I didn't hesitate to take this as a sign it was time for me to move on. I was born and raised in Dallas. When my folks split, my mama moved herself and us children, six of us in all, back to St. Louis, the town where she growed up. I figured I'd get in touch with my daddy who was still in Dallas, from what my mama had said. She didn't know any way of contacting him, so I figured I'd seek him out after I got there. He used to send us kids a package of all kinds of candy for Christmas when we was still young'uns and still cared about Christmas. Then one Christmas the packages stopped, and we lost all contact with him. My mama said once she figured he'd found himself another family and had put us out of his mind once and for all.
"When I got to Dallas, I didn't even know where to start to look for him. I didn't realize Dallas was such a big town. I asked everyone I crossed paths with if they knew Verdin Brown. No one seemed to recollect the name. With Brown being such a common name, I didn't have any luck even finding anyone who could say for sure they even knew any of his family. I started going to clubs, looking to find a place in a band. My intention was to start my own band, but I needed money, which meant I needed to start playing right away.
"I got lucky one night; I was at this after-hours place. This band was just jamming. Real wild, crazy stuff they was playing. They was doing a lot of drinking, and a couple of them was doing some narcotics. I don't know what kind of narcotics they were doing. I always had the good sense to stay away from that stuff, and mostly I just turned a blind eye towards folks I was around, who was doing them.
"Anyway, this big fellow must have been about six-four or so, started cussing at the other guys. I'm not real sure of what he was on, narcotics or alcohol. He started yelling at them about how they was no good. He started yelling about how bad they made him sound. He started yelling that he wouldn't play with them no more. A couple of the other guys just shook their heads. None of them challenged him. None of them said a word to him. They just sat there quietly, waiting on his next move. His next move was out the door. We never saw him again. A few weeks later, word came back to us that his wife and little daughter had just been killed. He had laid them to rest the very morning he played with his band for the last time.
"My Sweet Baby, that song I still play sometimes was his. At least, he was the one I first heard play it. He used to introduce the song this way, 'I'd like to play a song for my sweet wife. The woman who took mercy upon this hulk of a man you see before you. I used to drink all night run around with the worst kind of women. But then I met her. She changed me and my life for the better.' Then he'd start singing this song, parts of which bordered on the vulgar," he said with a laugh.
I still think about that song, my mama's singing of it, and where she might have heard it. She told me she had spent time in Dallas when she was a young girl, but she would have been much too young to have heard it in a club. It might have been a more popular song than I might have imagined. But the song seemed to mean so much to her.
He continued. "The others in the band were complaining about 'that big, stupid, arrogant son of a bitch’ when he stormed out of the club that night and saying they weren't sure what was the best course for them to take. A couple of the guys even talked about taking some time off and maybe seeing a little bit of the country. I saw my opportunity, and I grabbed it.
"'I sing, and I play,' I said. 'Do you really kid?' one of them asked me. 'I've Seen the Blues,' I said, giving them direction as to what to play. They just sat there and looked at me. I strapped on my guitar and began to play. Still, they just sat and watched me. I started singing, 'I've seen the sunrise, I've seen it set too. I've seen women like you, yeah, I've seen the blues.'
"The second verse, the drummer started playing along. It was just me and him until I had finished the last verse. 'You all want me to play something else?' I looked around at each of them. I was tempted to just scream out, 'just give me a goddamned chance!' I didn't, though. I asked them what time we were rehearsing the next day. They gave me a time, and I left.
"It didn't take me long to realize that Mr. Joshua Summers was right about these guys. They weren't any good. Over a period of about three or four months, I had replaced every one of their no-playing asses," he finished with a laugh.
Summers is my name. I don't think Joe Brown knew that. At least, he gave no sign of knowing when he said Mr. Summers' name. I tried to put it all together. Maybe Mr. Joshua was kin to me in some way. Maybe my mama heard him sing the song. I was sure that was it, but I had no way of knowing how he was related to me. He could have been an uncle of hers, was my first thought.
"Joe," I started. "My name is Summers. My mama used to sing that song to me when I was growing up. She used to sing "My Sweet Baby" to me. She may have heard Mr. Joshua Summers sing it. You know anything about his family life?"
"All I know is what I heard about his wife and his little girl getting killed. I never even heard a clear story about how they got killed. I only saw him in that club a couple of times. We never even passed a word between us. I never even caught his wife's or his little girl's names. What was your mama's name? What are the names of some of the other Summers' in your family? Your mama used to sing you THAT song?"
"My mama's name was Angie Summers, Angelina. Her grandma was Christina Summers." I tried to remember the names from the headstones that marked the graves in the family burial lot. "Those were the only two I knew for sure. She only sang the first two lines, over and over."
"I don't think I ever heard either of those names before. Let me think." He started to scratch his head the way folks do when they are trying to help a thought escape from underneath their scalps. "I'm trying to remember if any of the guys from his band are here in town. I used to run into them every now and then, and we'd always sit and laugh about that night. I think you'd be better trying to find one of them in Dallas. I can give you their names if you want."
"Yeah, give me their names, and I'll try to look them up." I really didn't intend to try to look anyone up in Dallas. I had a graveyard full of dead folks back home; I didn't have any intention of going to Dallas to try to lookup dead folks I had no connection to.
My mama used to tell me stories about her family in Dallas. I don't remember her ever telling me her daddy's name. I don't really remember very much of what she told me about her time in Dallas. I remember her telling me about her daddy singing to her when she was young. 'A singing man,' she once called him. I don't remember her saying if he sang in clubs or in a band. I always assumed she was saying he sang in a church choir.
I do remember the story of how she and her mama ended up in East Texas; my remember version. She said, as I recall, "my daddy called me to him, and while sitting on the edge of the bed that he and my mama slept on, he looked at me with those big, brown eyes of his and smiled a sad kind of smile. He told me he didn't know what we were going to do. He said he didn't know how to look after a little girl.
"The next morning, we left the apartment we were living in and headed for the bus station. We sat quietly and waited for the bus that would take us away from Dallas. When my father rose from his seat gave a head nod in a direction, I followed the head nod. I took my mother's hand, and we walked towards a bus I had just seen pull up. My mother went on first, I followed, and my daddy was last. I sat by the window and watched the land roll by. My mother sat next to me, but she didn't say a word to me the entire trip. She sat there with a blank look on her face, staring straight ahead. Every town we passed through, I looked over to my mama to see if we would be getting off. For ten or twelve stops, the answer was no. Finally, when we reached East County, my mother rose. I followed my mother off the bus, and we waited for the two bags we had brought to be offloaded. I went over to my father's side and took his hand in mine.
"I asked my father if we were there. He said, 'yes, baby girl. this is East County where I grew up. I have family there, and we are here to visit them.'
"We left the bus stop heading out of town. My father held one suitcase in one of his hands, my hand in the other. My mama followed, carrying the other suitcase. Not a word was passed between them the entire walk. We stopped at the gate of a small farm about two miles out of town. Just off the road, about ten yards or so sat an old run-down-looking shack. My father released my hand and walked up to the shack. He tried to open the door but found it locked. It took only a couple of knocks for the door to open. There stood this old woman who, at the time, looked to be about a hundred years old. The old woman looked at my father, nodded, and said, 'it's been quite a while. I guess you forgot how to write. Give your mama a hug.'
"They hugged like two people who hadn't seen each other in many a year. After their embrace was broken, my daddy turned to me and said, 'come say hello to your grandma.' At first, I was frightened by the 'toothless, grinning old hag' I saw before me. I grabbed my mother's hand and tried to hide behind her. My daddy laughed and said, 'come on, sweet baby girl. This here is my mama. There's no need to be afraid of her.' The hug my mama gave to my grandma began to soften my mama's attitude towards my grandma.
"The next thing I remembered was my daddy putting me to bed. It had been a long, tiresome trip, and I was worn out. That was the last time I ever saw him. When I rose the next morning, he was gone. My mother just told me 'your father is gone.' I don't remember her ever saying another word to me about him."
My mind kept creating stories of who Mr. Joshua Summers might have been. I could see him standing in the middle of the stage behind a microphone. I could hear a deep, rich voice crooning 'My Sweet Baby'. I could see the slight, devilish smirk on his lips. Joe said he was six foot four. I pictured him as being almost a giant in size. I could see a man, medium brown of color, the same darkness my grandma showed in pictures I saw of her. Most of his face was hidden in the shadow of the hat he wore low, tilted over one eye.
I started to imagine him being my grandfather. I started to see this large man walking hand in hand with a little girl who grew to be my mama. I know Joe Brown said his little girl and his wife had been killed, but he didn't seem sure about that. That could have just been what Mr. Summers told everyone. He could have been ashamed to admit that he had left his wife and child. I didn't know anything about my grandfather, really, except that he had left my mama and her mama with his mother and run off somewhere. My feelings toward him were softened somewhat because instead of just abandoning them, he had left them with his mother.
I went to meet Joe at the place he was staying. I hoped there were memories he had forgotten that might have come to mind since we'd last talked. I tried to calmly push him on the subjects I had in mind. He seemed frustrated at not being able to help me. He sat there, his face screwed up, trying to bring back memories that were probably never there. He repeated to me though, that he had barely known Joshua Summers and he never had any interest in knowing anymore about Joshua Summers, then was forced upon him.
I nodded my head, acknowledging the truth in what Joe had said. I felt somewhat shameful for having asked so much from Joe. "I'm sorry, Joe," was all I could say.
"I'm sorry too, son. I sure wish I could help you. I sure wish I could."
My near-obsession with this song, with the man who sang it, with the memories of my mama, began to prey on my mind. I would lie awake in bed at night, hearing her voice in my head. The same two lines being repeated over and over.
Several nights later, I was lying in bed when I heard a knock on my door. I opened the door, and there stood Joe Brown, and with him, there was another man, maybe ten years or so older than Joe. Joe and I shook hands, and he turned to the gentleman who was with him and said to me, "this is Mr. Eli Franklin. I knew him from my days in Dallas. He was very well acquainted with Mr. Joshua Summers. Says he and Joshua knew each other for the better part of ten years before Joshua just up disappeared."
I motioned them both further into the room and stepped aside to let them pass me while I closed the door.
"Won't you both have a seat?" I asked while pulling a chair for Mr. Franklin and motioning Joe over to the bed.
"Joe says you knew him for the better part of ten years? Did you know his family? His wife and little girl?" I asked.
"Yeah, I knew his wife," Mr. Franklin started. "I was in the first band he was in after he reached Dallas. He was practically right off the bus. Walked into the club where we was rehearsing with a sheepish look on his face. He asked if we minded if he sat in.
"He was from somewhere in the Deep South, I believe; Mississippi or Louisiana, one or the other. Me, I was born and raised in Dallas. That was where my family ended up after slavery times ended. My people come from Georgia. They left Georgia headed west. Somehow, Texas was as far west as they got. I come down here to Houston a few years back to be with my daughter and her family. They needed a little looking after, and I didn't have anyone left in Dallas, so here I am."
Judging by the look of him, I doubted he had come to Houston to look after anyone. I doubted that he was able to even look after himself. He had this way of rambling when he talked, jumping from subject to subject.
"He was a mouth harp player by trade. Joshua Summers was. He was pretty good too. I'd be backing on drums. I believe Feece Manure was on bass. Pair Manure was the singer. Hmm—the guitar player's name seems to have escaped me. Let's see—it wasn't Johnny McGregor. Johnny McGregor replaced the fellow after the fellow left the band. I can't recall what his name was. Feece Manure's name was really Jacque. Pair Manure's name was Jacque also. You understand what I'm saying? They was from the bayous of Louisiana, or so Pair would tell. Manure wasn't their real last name, but it sounded a lot like Manure when it was said properly. We just called them Pair and Feece.
"Pair died. I can't remember what of. I'm sure he died, though. That was when Joshua started the singing. Feece thought that by right, the job of singer was his to inherit from his father. It was really a matter of convenience that gave the job to Joshua. We could do without a mouth harp player, but we needed someone on bass. We had a few bass players sit in to keep Feece quiet. We voted against every one of them till finally, we said we'd have to stick with Joshua for the time being. Joshua had a manner about him, but he didn't have the greatest voice. He had a presence, though. And there was much more money in presence than in talent. Always has been, always will be. Joshua could write too. After he'd taken over singing for about three or four months, about half the songs we were doing were his. Even after he left the band, we kept doing some of his songs. Good songs. Damned good songs."
He stopped and scratched his head. He seemed to have lost his train of thought. I looked over to Joe, who sat on the bed watching Mr. Franklin, waiting for him to continue. After a few minutes, Joe decided to help Mr. Franklin along with his story.
"Eli? You were telling us about your old band with Joshua Summers, the Manures--father, and son--the songs Joshua used to write, you said you knew his wife."
Mr. Franklin nodded his head and gave a slight smile, then continued, "yeah, yeah, yeah. Mr. Joshua Summers. His wife's name was Angie. Miss Angie, I used to call her. Good woman, Miss Angie was. When I heard about the automobile crash that killed her and her little girl, damn near broke my heart. She always had a quick smile for me, always quick to laugh at my jokes, always had an extra portion for me to share a meal.
"I went to the apartment the three of them had lived in to say my 'sorries'. There wasn't no answer at the door, and I went to the apartment manager's room and asked if he'd seen Joshua. He said the last he'd seen of Joshua was when Joshua came to turn in his key and say he wouldn't be back. I shook my head in grievance for my friend. I said to the manager what a terrible thing it was for a man to lose his family in such a tragic way. The manager had no idea what I was talking about. I told him the story of the death, as I had heard it. He shook his head and said the story couldn't be true. Said he'd seen Joshua, Angie, and the little girl get on a bus headed out of town a few days after I had heard Angie'd been killed. He said he was sure the story of the automobile crash couldn't be right. He said he'd seen the three of them get on a bus headed south out of town. He said Joshua and Angie each carried a large suitcase, each seeming pretty weighted down like they was leaving for good.
"That's the last I ever heard about Joshua Summers until I ran into Joe Brown, here, a couple of days ago. I heard old Joe was kicking around town, and I had my son-in-law look him up for me. I was surprised to hear that he was still playing. He never had no damned talent," he said with a smile, looking over at Joe.
"While we was catching up, Joe asked me if I remembered Joshua. At first, the name escaped me. Then Joe mentioned the story about his wife and child. That brought it all back to me. God, I hadn't thought about that man in forty years."
He paused, his story with a thoughtful look on his face. Like there were more memories coming back into his head. Joe and I sat quietly watching him, waiting for him to put these new memories into words. Then his face went blank, and he gave each of us an innocent, unknowing look like he had forgotten every word he had spoken and maybe forgotten who we were.
"I guess we better be moving along," Joe said while rising from the bed. He reached out to Mr. Franklin, taking his arm and helping him to his feet. Mr. Franklin looked at me, gave me a nod of his head, and said, "I guess it's time for me to be getting back to the home."
Joe looked at me when Mr. Franklin said, "getting back to the home," with a slightly embarrassed look on his face. He said, "I'll see you later," and hurried Mr. Franklin out the door.
I had serious doubts about Mr. Franklin's story all the while he was telling it. He rambled quite a bit, and it sometimes seemed he was telling different stories. He was an old man, and old men's minds make up memories of things that never happened. I got the feeling though, that these memories were memories that had been planted in his head. I had told Joe my mama's name was Angie. Mr. Franklin was saying Angie was my grandmother's name, but my grandmother went by Angelique. It was such a bad story he told; I might have been amused if I had been in a different frame of mind.
My first reaction was dismay at Joe's deceit. I felt that he was trying to make a fool out of me. Soon I realized that wasn't Joe's way; he was trying to help me. He was responding to my desperation to find the source of a song that had come to mean too much to me.
All I had left of my mama that was worth holding on to was two lines from a song. I had no real kinship with whoever it was who wrote that song. I'll never know who Mr. Joshua Summers really was. I'm not going to Dallas or anywhere else looking for more unreliable memories, chasing more false hopes that, even if proven to lead somewhere, would still not leave me anywhere but lost.
Old Joe was just trying to help me, just trying to help me. He couldn't help me, though. The only one who could ever really help me was me. And I wasn't willing to try.