The Guitar Man – Part 6: Jessie Jones and Me
After his brilliant short story series ‘Dogbite’, Chris Adam-Smith has written a new series featuring the adventures of The Guitar Man. The first installment in this series can be read here.
Part 6: Jessie Jones and Me
It was another hot dry afternoon and the Mary Bell was in trouble again, this time it was a broken paddle on the big wheel that had damaged others and made steering the big steamer difficult. We were stuck fast at Baton Rouge for at least one night and maybe more. The town was named after early settlers discovered a red cypress tree stripped of its bark marking a tribal boundary, they named the marker Red Stick and it stuck. I learned that from the old pilot who had guided us along the Mississippi and safely docked the crippled Mary Bell alongside the wharf and an easy walk or carriage ride to the township itself. That knowledge was not a great help but little bits of information like that come in useful sometimes and the river is always rife with rumour. People like to talk, to gossip, spread the word and a knowledgeable man such as Henry Bones our pilot, had a soothing and interesting voice. I was drinking the afternoon away while Harry Coen and Georgiana went ashore, I guess, for some clothes shopping. We were pretty flush and Georgy really did deserve a treat, playing and singing the long smoky nights away was not necessarily something she enjoyed. I opted to stay behind to drink, read and practice on the Martin.
Henry Bones went below for a nap and I picked away at a tattered copy of Huckleberry Finn but found the dialect difficult to follow, me being in more of a straight literary frame of mind. Still, I persevered until I dozed off and the book slipped from my fingers. I awoke with a jolt looking up at Samuel, the gang plank watchman, smiling down at me and saying, ‘You got a visitor, boss, wants to come aboard and say hello. That ok by you?’
I pulled my muddled thoughts out of Huck’s adventure thinking who? Did I leave a bad moment behind on our last visit the previous year? A traveling man cannot be too careful. ‘What’s the gent’s name, Sam, does he have a card?’
‘He don’t got no card and she ain’t no he, boss, not no-way is she a he.’
I sat there thinking. It could be bad or even worse, I am no saint. ‘No, Sam, I’ll come down, no need to drag a lady up those hot stairs.’
He smiled, shook his dark head and turned away.
I got to my feet, reached for my coat but decided against it. Instead, I picked up my straw hat and set it firmly on my head so that the brim tilted a little to the south to keep the sun out of my eyes, and set off down the stairway, allowing my hand to have as little contact as possible with the hot steel rail.
There was a carriage and driver waiting at the bottom of the sun-drenched gangway but of my visitor or Samuel there was no sign.
‘Forgive the intrusion but it was not comfortable waiting down there in the hot sunshine, young Johnny Miller.’
I spun around, stumbled and stared at her. She had hardly changed, sure age had gifted her some lines and she was maybe a few pounds heavier but the raven black hair still shone, the dark eyes still sparkled, the smile was the smile I remembered and she was smiling now.
‘Do I look that shocking’ She asked softly, ‘age will do that to a lady?’
I was bedazzled, almost hypnotised, my words were jumbled in my head, I waited, calmed my inner self for a moment or two regaining some semblance of composure. ‘I am so sorry, Miss Jones, I didn’t mean to…’ The words died in my mouth.
‘Easy now, you are quite tall enough to call me Jessica or Jessie if you so wish. However, to me you will always be my Guitar Man, maybe Johnny Guitar would be easier though.’
She stepped forward, reached out, her arms open, I stepped inside and I held her very close, maybe too close, she drew away quickly, smiling, laughing actually. ‘It’s awfully hot out here in the sun, you have some shade for me?’
Samuel appeared as if by magic with a white parasol. ‘Thanks, Sam,’ I said, taking it from him. ‘Can you fix us a couple iced drinks and bring them to the sun deck, it is shady there at this time of the day.’ He nodded and vanished.
‘That ok with you? What about your man down there?’
‘Lead the way and yes, and yes to the drink just so long as it is very cold.’ Jessica Jones said, walking over to the rail and waving down at the carriage and calling. ‘Take a break, Henry, be back here in about an hour or so and do not get drunk.’
The sun deck was not a sun deck at that moment, the after end was sheltered by the steam ship’s overly large black funnel. I pulled up a lounger for her and placed a small deck table beside it upon which Samuel placed a large jug of ice water and a smaller one of gin, before sliding away and back to his duties.
‘You still have it I see,’ she said, sipping her drink and nodding towards the cased guitar propped against the side of my chair.
‘I would not part with that if my life depended on it.’ I smiled, thinking about the Cantina Rosa and my encounter with Pancho Villa. I shivered.
‘Something I said?’ She sounded concerned.
‘No, of course not.’ I said, and quickly changed the subject. ‘How did you know I was here?’
‘I always know where you are when you are on the river. I have even been here on the Mary Bell when you sing and play which, incidentally, you do very well.’
‘I had a good teacher but why not say hello or…?
‘It would not have been prudent. Although separated over many years Cole was still alive and still a man very much in the public eye until his passing last year. I thought it not to be a good time to say hello.’
‘Oh, I am sorry for your loss,’ I said softly.
‘It wasn’t too much of a loss. But that’s a story you do not want to hear. He was a politician more than he was a husband and like all politicians, the truth was not a habit of his.’ She gave me a weary smile. ‘And you? Just look at you in your Stetson straw, tall, handsome in a cowboy sort of way. Your colleagues are talented, and you are very popular here on the river, that’s how I first heard about you. Some friends took a trip on the Mary Bell and were taken with the young soul singer with the sad voice and the Martin guitar. I knew straight away it was you.’
‘Not so young now, Jessie.’ I said
She got to her feet, smoothed down he floral dress and walked to the side of the Bell, watching the muddy water sliding by the freshly painted hull. I quickly refilled her glass terrified she was about to leave.
‘Yes, still very young but so much taller.’
‘How old are you, Jessie, if it is not rude of me to ask.’
‘You sweet young man, of course it isn’t rude to ask, a lady can always refuse to answer or she can lie.’ She paused, thinking, looking at me long and hard. ‘You are taller it is true but I am still ten years older than you so, whatever you are thinking Guitar Man, don’t.’
I laughed and walked over to her and leaned on the rail beside her. ‘When you are twelve years old, ten years might sound an awful lot but when you are well over twenty- one it somehow does not.’ I studied the water with great care, sipping my drink, listening to her gentle breathing, smelling the natural perfume of her and remembering something Harry had once told me. A card is dealt, you have seconds to make up your mind, call or fold, don’t rationalize, don’t start overthinking, considering alternatives. If you have a gut feeling, a sense of something, go for it. You win, you win, you lose, you lose, that’s life.
Harry Coen was never wrong. I straightened up, set down my glass, reached out and took her gently by the shoulders. ‘I am not a politician, just a reasonably honest itinerant guitar stringer and this is the truth. Never a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about you, thought about that kiss you gave a miserable snot-nosed, twelve-year-old kid. There was a promise of sorts in that kiss, Jessie Jones, I aim to hold you to it.’
‘You are quite mad and…’ But that was about all of the time she had to speak before I returned that long-ago kiss, and made Miss Jones fulfil that promise.
So that’s how we became a quartet, a famous quartet in our own narrow circle, how we made music in the long hot summer on that old, muddy Mississippi River, Georgy, Jessie, Harry an Me. It was also the summer I crossed trails with Happy Jack Straw, a murderous bastard, a killer, a thief and a blackmailer, a man of significant, ill-earned influence but, as Mark Twain might have said, a man of little consequence.