Monday, December 7, 2009

Original Ace Atkins short story excerpt (part 1 of 3)

Busted Flush Press's new reprint of Ace Atkins's first novel featuring blues historian Nick Travers, Crossroad Blues, also features an original, never-before-published Nick short story, set at Christmas! As an early Christmas gift to fans, BFP is serializing the story in three posts... Here's part one... Enjoy!

An original Nick Travers story. © Ace Atkins, 2009

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN one to keep an eye open during a church prayer—not because of my lack of faith in God but because of my lack of faith in people. What I learned by watching was that others were doing the same. People mistrust people. Each of us pulses with our own agenda. In New Orleans, and particularly, in the French Quarter, those agendas cross frequently.

That night I was in my own house of worship—JoJo’s Blues Bar—with both eyes closed tight as I chased a shot of Jack with a cold Dixie. Fats’ band banged out the last few chords of “Blue Monday,” his lazy sax matching my own black mood. Each drink softened that black mood into brown melancholy.

A cold December drizzle rained outside. Cold droplets fell a muted pink along the window lit by JoJo’s neon sign, only a few regulars in the bar with ragged fedoras pulled low. JoJo’s niece Keesha, the only waitress on duty, tapped her foot slowly to Fats’ music. While she smoked, she read the Bible by dim candlelight.

“Keesha, how ’bout another Dixie?”

“You know where they’re at.”

And I guess I did. JoJo was my best friend and this was my second home. I took off my trench coat and old scarf and walked behind the bar. Pushing up my shirt sleeve, I reached into the slushy ice bin and grabbed a beer. My hand instantly went numb.

“Who’s closing up?” I asked.

“Felix,” she answered, stuck somewhere in the middle of Corinthians. “JoJo and Loretta went to Baton Rouge.”

The set finished and the sparse crowd clapped. Most of them were old men like JoJo who had frequented this place since the early sixties. JoJo’s was the only decent blues bar in a city dominated by jazz. “A little Delta on the Bayou,” is what said the sign outside read.

Fats pulled up a stool next to me. His face grayed under the tiny Christmas lights strung over the bar’s mirror. I looked across at both of our reflections and tilted my head.

He said my name dully back to me.

“How ya been, Fats?”


“You know why JoJo’s in Baton Rouge?” I asked, for lack of anything better.

“Naw.” Fats shifted in his seat and coughed, politely turning his head away. He looked over at Keesha with her head close to the Bible.

“What? You got religion now or somethin’?”

“Seek and ye shall find,” Keesha said, blowing smoke in his face.

Hmm,” Fats said. “Ain’t that some shit?”

Someone opened the two rickety Creole doors and a cold breeze rushed in off Conti. A horse-drawn tourist carriage clopped by with a guide pointing out famous sites. Fats popped a handful of salted peanuts into his mouth, shell and all.

“You hungry, Fats?”

He looked at my face for the first time, right in the eyes. “Yeah, I could eat.”

Fats was known for gambling or drinking away his weekly profits every Friday. He usually lived on Loretta’s leftover gumbo or handouts from JoJo.

We walked over a few blocks to the Café Du Monde. I asked for a couple orders of beignets and two large café au laits. A Vietnamese waiter set down the square donuts covered in powered sugar and within a minute, Fats ate them all.


His coffee sat empty before him. I ordered another round for him.

Fats didn’t say a word. He leaned an arm on the iron railing and looked across the street at St. Louis Cathedral. Or maybe he was looking at the bronze statue of Andrew Jackson. I’ve always liked to think it was the church, with the spotlight beams illuminating the simple high cross.

“Is it the track?”

“Naw.” He laughed.

“You need help?”

“No,” Fats said. “What I got, pod’na, is a fair deal. Just like Robert Johnson said, ‘Last Fair Deal Goin’ Down.’ You know about Johnson?”


“He sure played a weird guitar. I’ve always tried to make my sax do that. But it just ain’t the same.”

“What’s the deal, Fats?”

He laughed again and shook his head. He looked up. “You ever been in love, Nick?”

“Every Saturday night.”

“No, man. I mean really in love. Where it make you sick jus’ to think you ain’t gonna get no more.”

“I guess.” I looked at him as he brushed a hand over his gray suit to get off the fallen powdered sugar.

“Let’s just say I found somethin’, all right, big chief.”

“That’s where the money went?”

“Thanks for the eats, Nick.”

And with that, Fats reached down, grabbed the handle of his battered sax case, patted it like a child and was gone. I sipped on another café au lait, warming my hands on the steaming mug.

Two days later, JoJo called to tell me that Fats was dead.


THE SLEET PLAYED against the industrial windows of my loft, a 1920s lumber storage, in the Warehouse District on the blackest early afternoon I could remember. Tulane was on Christmas break and instead of teaching blues history, I found extra time to loaf. I was practicing some of Little Walter’s harp licks on my Hohner Special 20 when JoJo buzzed me from Julia Street.

“I’ve already joined the Moonies,” I said, pressing the button on my intercom. “Fuck off.”

“Goddammit, open the door.”

I went to the kitchen portion of the second floor’s open space, lit the stove with a kitchen match, and began to make coffee. I left the sliding metal door ajar and JoJo walked in, tramping his feet and muttering obscenities under his breath.

“You don’t even know my mother,” I said.

“I need you to go with me to clear out Fats’ shit. That’s if you want him to have a proper funeral. Man died without a cent. And no family that anyone knows about. Loretta said we should do it.”

“She’s right.”


IT WAS A bullet through a clouded mind that killed him. A self-inflicted wound. Or so read the coroner’s report that my friend, Detective Jay Medeaux, shared with me. He told me a pink-haired runaway found Fats’ body on the Riverwalk, his back broken from a final fall onto the jagged rocks lining the Mississippi River.

All I could imagine was the grayness of those rocks and the grayness of his face among the damp paper bags and broken multi-colored bottles as we climbed the stairs to his apartment. It was on Decatur, not far from the French Market—a sign outside asked for fifty bucks a week.

The apartment manager met us on the stoop, thumbing through the sports section of the Times-Picayune. Wordless, with an impassive face, he led us to a second-floor efficiency. Hazy white light sprouted through rust-flecked metal blinds onto a rat’s nest of dirty clothes, an empty bottle of Captain Morgan’s spiced rum, a rumpled black suit on a bent hanger, a book called The Real Israelites, a juke joint poster, a toothbrush with a box of baking soda, and a pack of sax reeds on an unmade bed.

No sax.

“Mmhmm,” JoJo said.

“It’s not here.”


“Hey, buddy,” I said to the manager. “Where’s his saxophone?”

“What’s here is here. I ain’t responsible.”

“Where’s his goddamned sax?”

I felt JoJo’s strong hand on my shoulder.

“Man doesn’t know.”

The manager bit his lower lip, turned on a heel, and left us. We spent five minutes packing everything in the room into a cardboard box made for Colt 45 malt liquor. I took the rumpled black suit from the hanger, folded it, and handed it to JoJo. He nodded.

I heaved the box up into the crook of my elbows and walked down a urine-scented staircase. My ears rang, full of Fats’ sax, those deep full notes that bled the man’s life and loss. He never cheated, putting all he was into every note. And now someone had taken the one thing he cared about even more than his own life.


THAT AFTERNOON I started searching all around the Quarter. I looked into any painted window using the words MUSIC, PAWN, or ANTIQUE. I learned his sax was a classic made in the forties, a collector’s item that could pay for a dozen caskets and burial plots.

I found nothing.

The cool day turned into colder night as the setting sun turned burnt orange over the Mississippi. Driving down St. Charles Avenue, mottled shadows played over my face. Leaves turned end over end from the knurled water oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

I parked off Prytania, where Fat’s drummer lived in a rotting carriage house among mansions.

He was stoned when he opened the door. Red-eyed, sunken-shouldered, giggly stoned. Tom Cat usually wore his hair in a greasy ponytail, but tonight it hung wild in his face. Clutching a bag of Cheetos in his skinny white arms, he wiped orange dust from the corner of his mouth and invited me in.

“Hey, dude.”

I pulled a crumpled pair of jeans and a foul-smelling T-shirt off a chair and sat down. The place reeked of marijuana. He’d be lucky if the paint didn’t start to peel.

“Want a smoke?”

“No, thanks,” I said, smiling and pulling a pack of Marlboros from my jean-jacket pocket.

“Jesus, Nick, I’m a mess.” He started to giggle. “Why’d he do it, man? Didn’t he realize it wasn’t just him, man, that . . .”

He laughed uncontrollably.

I smoked my cigarette and looked outside. Two kids played touch football in the street.

“I’m sorry,” he said. His laughing died like a cold engine. “I just can’t handle the shit now. Ya know?”


“Your band need a drummer?”

“Did Fats have a girlfriend?”

“I really don’t want to talk about this. It makes me feel like I’m gonna throw up.”

“I need to know.”

“You ain’t a cop, man. Don’t be a hard-on.”

“Did he have a girlfriend?”

He dropped his head between his knees, black hair cascading into his face. In a few seconds he raised back up, looked at the ceiling, red-faced from the inversion, and said, “See, Fats didn’t have girlfriend. Fats . . . Fats had a whore.”

To be continued...

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