The Guitar Man – Part 7: Happy Jack Straw 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.
And the summer was good for Georgiana, ‘Handsome’ Harry Coen, Jessie and me, but it couldn’t last forever, nothing does. Autumn came to the big river and we decided as always to take a break from the routine of paid employment and we sang and played wherever and whenever we wanted to as a quartet, a trio, a duet or solo or with other such groups. I always liked the words ‘guest appearance’ it had a certain ring to it like maybe you really were somebody and not just a man behind a lovely Martin guitar. When that happened, we would turn up at each other’s performances as enthusiastic supporters, unbiased of course. It all worked very well. Much of the time though we hung out in the honkytonks on Bourbon Street or in the colourful bars and cafes listening to others. But mostly we sat around Jessie’s lovely house looking over a splendid flower decked courtyard quietly alive with colourful New Orleans folk, dancing to whatever sound was on offer but rarely on offer from us.
It was a lush property befitting a congressman and his wife. The veranda gallery was spacious and high enough to not become part of the whole scene, a recluse, I guess you might call it, a place to sit and think with hands cupped around a hot, sweet coffee cup or a glass iced gin. It was a good time. But always at the back of my mind was Jessica’s sudden appearance on the jetty and the ease with which she fell into my arms with words of love and understanding but never a mention of her dead husband or of the real circumstances of his death. Harry said that would come eventually and I knew he was right but the impatience of a slightly jealous lover can be something quite difficult to keep pent up for too long a time.
Jessie told me she loved me and I believed her but there are all kinds of love. A love for a mother, a sibling, a horse, a stray dog and even for a pig. Mister Piggy, I think he probably taught me more about love than anybody had or was likely to. There is the destructive love of one’s own self, that was to be avoided at all cost. And then there was the big one. The love between a beautiful, rich and educated woman and a guitar playing farm boy, and the self-doubts that oft times go with such a match. Harry and Georgianna were away for the night at some noisy Bourbon Street party but I had elected to stay at home with Jessie who was not really in the party mood. I had the afternoon shade on the swing seat and set aside my Mark Twain’s Tales of the Old Mississippi River and was rolling a gin washed ice cube around inside my cheek, thinking these foolish thoughts and studying a silver framed sepia photograph of the late congressman and his new bride, when Jessie returned from her evening bath, dressing gowned and carrying a hot coffee.
She stood behind me, close, and I could smell her faint, simply scented washed body as she ruffled my overly long hair and said, softly. ‘A penny for your thoughts, Johnny Guitar.’ She insisted on calling me Johnny even though it was not my given name, declaring it to be less anonymous than that of The Guitar Man, telling me if a man wanted to be somebody, he needed a name to be remembered by.
‘Worth four bits at least.’ I smiled up at her.
‘A whole half dollar, that’s pretty steep. They must be profound.’ She glanced down at my book. ‘Reading Mr. Twain again I see.’ She picked up the photograph. ‘Your Mr Twain had very little respect for politicians. “There is no distinctly American criminal class except congress,” I believe was one such observations.’
‘He said whole lot worse, I reckon.’
‘He was in all likelihood correct in that observation, get close to the Washington set and you quickly learn that most of them are a self-seeking, power and money hungry bunch without shame.’
‘Was your husband one such, was he on the side of the angels or the Devil?’
‘You have been wondering about me haven’t you, wondering if it was a planned to meet you or was it really happenstance that I should find you here on the river? You don’t have to answer that, a woman knows these things but some things are better left alone in the dirt where they belong, isn’t that right?’ She sat on the swing beside me.
I did not answer.
‘Pour me one, it is six o’clock somewhere in the world.’ I smiled at her, we all four of us had agreed that unless a special occasion, not to drink before six o’clock. I put the last of the ice in a glass, swirled it around and laced the water with gin. She sat back, relaxed. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’
I shook my head and watched as she carefully selected a factory rolled cigarette from a silver case and offered me one but I shook my head, trying desperately to give it up although, Harry Coen told me, the smoke deepened my voice made it gentler in some very strange New Orleans way. Harry was usually right about such things, actually he was usually right about most things.
I reached over picked up the box of blue-topped matches and fired her smoke. It smelled really good.
‘I promise you if you need such reassurance the way it happened is the way it happened but I do confess that, as time and our relationship progressed, thoughts have occurred to me that really are best not aired unless you wish it. We are to each other as we are and nothing will change that.’
‘Tell me if you want to,’ I said, weakening and taking a cigarette from the case.
‘I first met George Calhoun in that summer you went down with virus and had that sad episode with the hay fork and your uncle. George was visiting South Texas on the campaign trail. He was not a politician as described by Twain but a rarity, an honest one interested in the needs of the electorate and not in any self-aggrandisement. That day we came to say goodbye it was George who insisted on buying the Martin guitar, I could never have afforded it on my teaching pay. We had a good life for several years but the office wore him down eventually, he once told me it was difficult to be an honourable man in Washington. I make no excuses; he was at the very best a weak and susceptible human being born to failure. He gambled, he caroused, he drank, cheated on me and on the office, he had taken an oath to uphold. We talked long and hard and he vowed to change if I did not leave him as I had threatened to on several occasions. And so, I stayed. Things went well for us for a while and then he met Happy Jack Straw.’
She paused between each sentence studying on me, looking for a reaction which I did not show.
‘Happy Jack Straw is local hoodlum. A crook, a powerful man, a man who once in his clutches, there is no walking away from, believe me I know that from personal experience.’
We talked long into the evening and then into the night. We ate briefly, drank more than we should have and made love on the swing seat before retiring. When her breathing deepened and my Jessie Jones was asleep, I got out of bed and went back out into the night thinking of her story, weighing up the pros and cons of any action. Action she had not asked for but action I had, as her protector, to consider.
Her husband had dug a deep debt hole gambling and local hard man Happy Jack Straw’s organisation had bought up the IOUs and used them as leverage to blackmail George Calhoun into backing their shady deals, some of which involved the credibility backing of a congressman of Calhoun’s status. When she had threatened to leave him again if he did not break all ties with the gangster he vowed to meet with Straw and quit. He did just that and two days later a New Orleans Parish deputy found his body in the Quarter with two knife wounds in his back and his tongue missing. An example to anyone else thinking of quitting the organisation and going to the law.
Emboldened by the lack of any real investigation by the sheriff’s department, Straw moved in on Jessica, threatening her first by demanding money and later a more intimate relationship. She staved off the latter by answering his demands for the former. And that was when she came to me, not for help but in the hope of some comfort and solace. She had found more of both than she had hoped for and for a little while Straw made no contact until the day before she had confessed of her troubles to me.
My mind was fully occupied with the what I had learned from Jessie and how best to deal with it. I had made a few enquiries regarding Happy Jack Straw and was unimpressed. But dealing with such a powerful low life was another matter. Head on did not seem the way but some haste was needed. I was thinking these troubled thoughts when Harry Coen dropped by our room a little later in the day but not quite late enough for a strong drink. He looked at me long and hard before speaking. ‘What troubles you, my friend?’
‘No troubles, Harry, just thinking on things.’
He chuckled. ‘Do those things include a problem with Jessie?’
I stared at him. ‘How do you always know these things; it really is kinda of creepy.’ I couldn’t help but smile he did always seem to be around if trouble came my way and it was coming my way big time with Jack Straw on my mind.
‘I’m an empath. I soak up the problems of other folk, it saves me having any of my own.’
‘You can that to the bank. Tell me all.’
So, I did just that. He listened in silence and then sat there in a deeper silence smoking a cheroot and watching the smoke drifting away on the afternoon breeze blowing in from the partially open window. I waited, patiently wondering if he had actually heard me. Eventually he stood up, stretched and walked out of the door and leaned on the iron railing of the balcony, stared down into the courtyard below for a moment before turning back to me.
‘You have two problems here, short term and long term, my friend, and two answers. I can help you with one, the simplest one but the other is a little more complicated and you may not approve.’
‘Tell me.’ I said.
‘One way would be to let the man know you are not going to allow his bothering of Jessica, a short time frightener might do it but I have heard of Happy Jack and I doubt it would work and, if it did, it would only be a short term fix. The second way is more permanent.’
‘Like forever permanent.’
‘I like the sound of the forever permanent one better.’ I said.
‘You may not when the time comes, but give me a couple of days to figure it out, it will cost Jessica, but worth every cent I guess.’
‘She is not poor.’ I said.
Happy Jack Straw was a fat man, one of the fattest men I have ever met. His head was far too small for his vast body and his eyes too small for his round florid face. He had a permanent gold and silver toothed smile that never reached his piggy eyes. He was an ugly man. I had seen him in the street after Jessie had first told me of her troubles with him and I made a point of following him to a local eatery. In the open he was huge in the confines of our lounge he appeared to be twice as large. He did not knock on the door but opened it and walked straight in, he had to turn a little sideways to get through the opening. He stood there for a long moment his eyes getting accustomed to the gloom, finally he focused on me sitting crossed leg by an open window. He did not move, just stared at me with that permanent smile fixed to his hundred-dollar mouth. ‘What’s this, you hiding Jessica from me?’ There was no alarm in his soft voice.
‘Jessica couldn’t make the proposed meeting herself. I am representing her here to make a deal with you, and it is only a one-off deal.’
He stared at me long and hard before moving away from the door, his hand dropping to his jacket pocket. He chuckled. ‘So, you’re the weird banjo payer I have been hearing about, another knight in shining armour? Friend George didn’t do so well and he was taller than you.’
‘My height has been mentioned before by better, scarier men than you so no worries there, Happy Jack.’
‘Only my friends call me that…’
I interrupted him. ‘Then let’s pretend we are friends, Happy Jack, and making a big one-off deal so that we may never ever meet again.’
‘A deal? What sort of a deal could you possibly make that would be of any interest to me?’
‘We’ll buy the Calhoun IOUs from you with a fifty percent increase on the dollar, from what I understand that gives you a fair profit. It is a deal you should take.’
He slid sideways away from the door and moved towards the large window overlooking the courtyard below. He stopped, a look of curiosity on his face. Studying me. ‘And if I do not like that deal? What then, you going to beat me up? You come near me and I will eat you alive.’
‘You look as if you have eaten a good many men already, Jack, I would just be a taster. No, sir, if you don’t take the deal I offer, you are a dead man, that’s the only other deal in town.’
He moved closer to the window. ‘I have two very large creole bodyguards down there and should I not give them a signal that all is well, they will be up here and cut you up a piece at a time. I might leave one piece here for your whore so that she has something to remember you by.’
I shook my head and sighed. ‘You are like most outlaws, Jack. Stupid and cheap, filled with a self-importance born of violence. A knucklehead living on a hubris that was never there. Go ahead, be my guest wave to you friends…’
He moved to the window and studied what I knew to be an empty courtyard. He turned back to me pulling his hand from his jacket his fist filled with a snub nosed .32 Colt. ‘Where are they?’
‘My best guess is, Jack, they are halfway to Kentucky by now with a saddlebag filled with the money I offered you, offered in good faith I might add. If not, and they really liked you, which I doubt very much, they are in a pair weighted sacks and already at the bottom of Lake Pontchatrain waiting on the ‘gators.’
‘You really believe you can play Happy Jack Straw with that line you damned, dumb country bumpkin?’ He pointed the weapon at me. ‘You will see me out and you will see me safe.’
‘I don’t think that is going to happen, Jack, he gave you a choice but I am not.’ Harry Coen stepped out from behind the heavy drapes of the curtain to my left, his little silver Derringer in his fist.’
‘With that peashooter, I don’t think so.’ Straw swivelled the muzzle of the Colt just as Harry fired both barrels.
The heavy .45 slugs did not even rock the big man his little head and huge body soaked up the rounds but they did their duty well enough and, as with the gunman in Sally Anne James’ roadhouse where I had first met Harry so long ago, the fat man died. He slid back against the wall into a silent death with one round in the heart and another in the head.
I got to my feet, I was shaking like a leaf in the wind. Harry poured two stiff drinks and passed one to me. ‘It’s done don’t fret about it, we did the world a favour, one more cheap dead crook isn’t going to make much of a dent in this sad society in which we live but it helps.’ He walked to the window carefully stepping over the body of Happy Jack Straw and waved to the starry sky. Straw was laying there deader than a hat but with that valuable smile still intact. I wondered how much longer he would be wearing those gold teeth.
Within minutes two very large Creoles dressed in dark sombre suits and Homburg hats appeared at the door, they nodded to Harry, smiled, took the envelope he gave them, unwrapped a large tarpaulin and within seconds Happy Jack Straw was gone from our lives forever taking his valuable smile with him.
‘That man really fascinates you, doesn’t he? Why not meet with him he is often around these parts and, I understand very approachable. Perhaps he might even take a look at that book you are working on.’
‘Me, a book?’ I asked innocently, setting aside my Tales of The Mississippi.
‘You cannot keep a secret from a woman who loves you, not possible. You know so little about us, maybe we ought to start again from the beginning, I’ll get a chalk board and…’
‘Not something you do to a man like him,’ I said, laughing. ‘If it were, he would be snowed under with the scribblings of every darned guitar playing, song writing river rat of a poet in Louisiana.’
‘Well, my man, think on it at least.’ She said it with the laughter in her voice I had not heard for some time, not since she had learned of the mysterious but very welcome disappearance of Happy Jack Straw. ‘Because your Mr. Twain is dining with us here on Saturday evening and is looking forward to meeting you…’