The Rhythm Man
by James Beamon
Pennies. On the bar, they're the clearest display of my current lack of plenty. The sight hits me
more than silence, the grave quiet the non-applause made after my thirty minutes on stage.
Pennies is hard metal, the kind of weight that pulls down Icarus. Six dollars seventeen cents: a
mean grip of pennies, dimes, some nickels, no bills in the midst.
"That it?" I ask Red.
Red wipes his already clean bar down. There's comfort found in the familiar. A dim room
surrounds us, full of dark faces with dark countenances sitting around the tables talking, sulking,
playing cards, cheating, lying, selling fables.
"They not feeling the blues tonight, Horace."
Of course it's polite, what Red's saying. Better than declaring the blues all but died and
left the bluesmen. The better of us, the smarter, have already gone to playing faster tunes. I tell
people the blues is in my blood while wishing I could speed the groove.
"Charlie Pepper's coming through," Red says. "Another two bucks to close after him?"
Two bucks to warn people through my tired horn that their party's over. Two dollars to sit
through Charlie Pepper and his bopping, caterwauling, machine-gunning trumpet for hours on
hours. Enough bread to see a bit of meat on me and Pop's plates. Two more dollars I could earn
simply by not holding onto whatever my pride and time are worth.
"Keep me lubricated?" I ask.
Red nods. "Not promising to turn you into a well-oiled machine, but I'll make sure you
won't completely rust out."
"All I ask, Boss. Not even the Rhythm Man got that much oil." My lip agrees quick as if I
directly asked it, spasms around the glass my second sip.
Charlie Pepper comes in as I nurse bourbon, with a horn like my horn. Only it ain't my
horn. The crowd's cheering before he even touches the stage, before the horn touches his lips.
Then it does and then, boy . . . Then the jazz notes, the fast notes, start to pour. It's like the lights
brighten 'cause the faces brighten and everybody's standing, moving furniture, moving
themselves to the floor, pulled and pushed by the horn that ain't my horn.
The crowd dances, they want to dance, to get down with that fast, new sound called
bebop. They don't wanna stop and pause and feel the blues, but zing-zing, step, and groove,
swinging as if their trouble ain't really trouble but just a fever dream gone for good.
I'm mad but not mad. Easy enough to tell yourself it's the crowd's fault. Crowd's caught
up in a fad and can't hear the bad cause they don't wanna listen. They don't understand music,
know music, love music. They only use it. Then my lip twitches.
Ain't no fault in them listening.
I'm jealous but not jealous. Wasn't so long ago the money used to fold. My name alone
started me at forty bones a night in this very jook joint. Now I share bar tips with Red, and that's
more charity than anything else. Sure, I have my good nights when I'm up there crooning,
playing the songs I know, the ones I wrote. Not so good is when the crowd demands something
different, can't abide the healing the blues gives them because they just gotta dance.
I stay silent as Charlie Pepper plays for an eighth of a day, quiet as his horn performs. His
horn bleats, the crowd moves, his fingers blur, the people cheer. Right in my face, the only place
a million miles away, all the shit I miss.
When he's finally finished having his way with the room, he sits next to me to wet his
whistle. I ask him a question, the closest I'll come to congratulating him on his performance.
"How'd you get that fast?"
He leans in, looking left, looking right, like the secret's an alley cat and everyone behind
his back's a church mouse on the listen for it.
"The Rhythm Man gave me new fingers."
I bat his words like flies circling. "Gone, Charlie. I play clean-up after you. No need to
grow your tales that tall."
His brow furrows as if he's offended by my way, as if he didn't just say that he saw the
Easter Bunny pulling Santa's sleigh. "Swear on the cross, it happened. Called in a favor from a
war buddy, a pilot, had him fly me in a DC-Three. See, I reckoned if I was gonna ask for fast
hands I needed to be in the fastest thing I could get my hands on."
His hand takes off from the bar, rises like a plane from a runway. "So my buddy takes me
up in it, flies it smooth and straight and fast enough to make me two shades queasy, and
eventually the Rhythm Man came. Gave me fingers faster than snake bites and lungs big enough
to swim across the Mississippi without coming up for air."
I know Charlie's spinning gold, trying to sell his own legend.
Still, I'm a slice curious. "What's the price?"
"A man never gets something for nothing, least nothing nice. Tell me what he wanted.
Tell me his price." If there are directions for this road, I want to know the layout, all the
crossroads. "The Rhythm Man collect your soul?"
Charlie holds up two fingers. "Two prices. First you got to pay to parlay. And then,
something of value."
"Something like what?"
It's only then I notice the groove on his ring finger, used to be a wedding band. Charlie
laughs and takes a drink. Then my lip begins to twitch involuntarily, unnaturally. That's
happening and ain't no reason for it, let the doctors tell it. So what's the reason tales of the
Rhythm Man are older than my daddy? Why's the Rhythm Man still being talked about if there's
nothing to him?
Maybe I seen him once. Maybe. Something about as natural as the shake in my lip no
doctor never seen before.
"Old Rhythm's real all right," Charlie Pepper says as if he knows what's on my mind. His
eyes pan back to the stage. "Maybe he can help you close. Or open, if that's what you want.
Either way, crowd shouldn't have to wait for you, Horace."
Pops is sitting alone on the porch when I get home. Stiff-backed in his rocker, eyes fixed straight
ahead as if they were made to stare, a gaunt man in a gray shirt, nothing but sharp bones and a
shock of white hair.
"That you, boy?" His head turns toward my shuffling feet, his eyes milky, unblinking,
"Yeah's me." I let out a sigh as I sit in the rocker next to him. I look at him while he
looks at nothing.
"You know it's past three?" I ask.
"How would I know that?" he asks back.
I don't say nothing else for a mean while. Something in me can't tell the man who used to
tell me to get to bed to get to bed. Besides, what's it matter when your day's as dark as your
"How'd you do at Red's?" he asks.
"Earned some change," I tell him. What I don't tell him is how much I earn, just enough
change to realize how much I need change. Looking at him staring at a dark world is the last
straw. My days with a horn have a number on them and I've got to do something before that
number gets drawn.
"Gonna be gone for a few days, Pops."
He begins to rock his chair, making it speak in short creaks like a worn fiddle. Back and
forth, back and forth, as if my sentence takes time to digest. "Gone where?"
"N'Orleans. Gotta pull my stuff out of my lockup down there."
"You 'gotta,' huh?"
"Not earning like I used to, Pops. We could use the money if I can sell some of those
"Wire to your cousin Clyde out in Lafayette. Tell him to send them bottles with the
postman. Ain't no worse time for you to be away than this."
Cold air strokes a chill down my spine, reminding me it's either too early or too late to be
out here. "I prefer to get it myself."
"Nonsense," Pops says. "Clyde's a man you can trust around your best girl while she's
holding your bottom dollar. He real family. Tell him to come up with the bottles if you don't trust
the postman. Besides, I ain't seen him in a right spell."
"Heh." It's more bark than laugh. There ain't much arguing to be had against facts.
"Still," I say, "they're mine, not Clyde's. I should get them myself."
He stops rocking, a short creak like the fiddle's string breaking. "Who you talking
around? I hear it in your voice. You aiming to try."
"I'll be down there with the stuff. Ain't no point in not trying."
"The fact that there ain't no point is exactly the point. The point is he don't exist. He
never has. The bigger point is I need you with me, boy."
He never needed nothing in his life til now. But he doesn't need me, not like I need this.
He just needs someone. Anyone will do.
"It's nothing. A few days, tops," I tell him.
"Heh!" He spits. "I told you that same thing my share of times. How many more days did
my few days stretch into?"
I shrug as if he can see it, peering out from the porch, remembering the hours and hours I
spent looking into the distance, waiting for him to return.
"This how you finally pay me back--" he nods as if he gets it "--when I can't see enough
to see after myself?"
"Pops, I got no grudge with you."
His frown persists. "So you say. Don't matter. I know how it is, when the bug gets you.
When you think you almost saw him, where you swear he was right there in the corner of your
eye. Then every next time is your last time, you swear it, and months go by. Down the drain in a
swirl of useless rituals. How much time have you already spent looking?"
I don't answer. I can't count it.
"I already know the answer don't translate into numbers," Pops says, "but a word.
Enough. Hell, too much. If I knew these eyes only had so much sight in them, I wouldn't have
spent so much of it looking to turn rumors real. Least I know enough now to tell you not to waste
your time. The Rhythm Man ain't the one who needs you to get around his own place. I do."
I think of Charlie Pepper and dance halls full of people paying money to hear him play,
and words I can taste. It could be me closing those places. Or opening.
"You'll see me in a couple days. Promise."
"Idiot boy, I won't see you at all. Ever." He points to yonder, to out there, away from him
and his house. "Get the hell out."
A man's legs will cramp when he's waiting for the Rhythm Man. And it's understandable to tell
yourself, as I've told myself, while you're handling all that standing in an empty train car that this
is some test to prove your worth. Yeah, a dining car proving ground, headed north. But the pain
grows and grows until it starts talking in a plainer language, language that says the Rhythm Man
moves in his own time to his own tune and he ain't thinking about your legs 'cause he don't
understand shit like muscle fatigue. He just hears the sound of you falling and failing like a break
Keep in tune.
I take the worst comfort in the hard rain outside, a good sign that bad magic may work.
The rain is God's anguished tears 'cause I've abandoned Sunday morning prayers. It speaks as it
pelts the roof of the train, His harsh hush to quiet my unquiet soul. Shhhh . . .
A good host doesn't lean. He especially don't sit on the floor. More than anything else,
good hosts stand. So, no wall to lean against, just all clean, empty space behind my back, and
directly in front, place settings for the Rhythm Man. A single table dressed in white linen, fine
china, crystal glasses, fancy silverware. No food--never food--leaving plenty of room for the
crystal vase holding a dozen yellow roses that scent the air in a melody of warm and sweet like
memories of Bessie's neck, like brief trills of a flute.
Roses on the table, tulip-shaped sconces on the wall. Their yellow light flickers, dying
embers of a decaying electric age. The windows have blinds and those blinds have curtains,
which makes this dining car the only world that matters and me captive to the temperamental
Never food, but always the wine. Twenty different bottles lie in a cart beside the table.
All of them expensive, fine enough to break the most successful Negro's pockets, and I am far
less successful than most. It's everything I own. Some bottles were paid for, others stolen. Two
of them were wages for gigs where my name packed the house right before my horn blew it
down, back in the days before my horn threw its sound.
It's all myths and legends, this train car set to smoky specifications taken from voodoo
women and drunken bluesmen and what I tell myself I saw once with my own eyes for a split
second. Never food, always wine, sometimes the bird. I'm not taking chances with this, my final
attempt, so a parrot, blue like a hot neon sign, sits in a wire cage atop the wine cart. It rocks to
the gentle sway of the train, a motion I no longer feel on account of pained legs.
They scream at me, my legs, yelling hoarse and raw, full of the same rage I heard in my
daddy's voice the day I left him blind and beside himself to once again chase myths on trains.
Shit, he should understand. He was--he is--a bluesman. Old Primus Jones did his own
chasing of the Rhythm Man with his harmonica in tow. On barges and steamboats and tugs. Up,
down, and back up the Mississippi, making his name along the way playing in shack dives and
jook joints to get by.
Just like there's never food and always wine, there's always motion. In every broken
fragment, cracked whisper, and drunken utterance of the Rhythm Man, there's motion. It makes
sense. What else is rhythm besides motion? Guitar strings getting plucked, piano keys getting
pushed, horns like my horn blowing that syrupy-sweet wind. Where else he gonna appear but on
something like this train, them wheels churning shuka-shacka shuka-shacka, with that rain
shushing with all the bass of God on the roof, the folks in the next car's muffled carousing
sounding like the murmurings of an excited audience, and every car swaying with the melodic
drone of it all? And every now and then, that train whistle'll stab out of nowhere, shrieking like
mourning grief, and it's all part of that melody of motion, the last vital ingredient.
It'll call the Rhythm Man. All I gotta do is keep in tune.
There's one chair by the table, a place reserved for not my legs. It's simple, warm brown
wood with forest-green leather upholstery, but simple or not it calls to me, inviting like my
daddy's lap those times he used to sit me on his knee and go to work on his harmonica.
I look away from the chair, turning down sitting invitations and sweet memories that
leave a bitter wake. I look away and notice how the car's wood paneling, the forest green of the
carpet patterned with a subtle cream grid, it all matches the chair.
I look back and there, seated, is the Rhythm Man.
He wears a suit, formal and clean, black with long tails, white shirt with bow tie, so sharp
I swear he can cut the air and I can't help but care about my own suit, twenty dollars and
threadbare at the elbows and knees. His hair's natural, that nappy shit, braided in neat cornrows
that hang down his back like chains. Underneath my hat, my own mane is soft and conked, tamed
and flat. His skin is black like beetle backs at midnight. He ain't got no shoes. And he's sitting
down in that once-empty chair, one leg crossed, big black foot swaying as he stares at me with
eyes like a cat, slit-pupiled, all iris, one green, one blue.
"That watched pot, she never boils, I hear," he says.
This the Rhythm Man and I don't have words for him. The right words, the perfect words
that I dreamt about a dozen times have fled. Now nothing's said but he's still here and staring.
The fear he'll vanish like my lost words kicks my mouth open.
"Better believe it is, by high heaven."
They say stare into his eyes for too long and he'll expose all your secrets, laughing the
whole while. They say he's an African god, rode with us on the Middle Passage to put a song of
hope in our hearts to get us through that hard haul. They say he burns to the touch. They say he
shoots dice with Beelzebub and Baron Samedi. They say, they say, they say.
I remember my manners and take off my hat.
"For your pleasure," I say, nodding to the wine cart.
He turns his head, regards the vintages with a smile reserved for old friends. "Indeed," he
says. "Come. Drink with me. I never drink alone."
One of his hands lights across bottle labels; his other hand points across the table, where a
chair identical to his waits for me. My legs ache too much to ask how or care. I sit and wait.
He takes the 1912 tawny port and dips the bottle neck through the birdcage wire. The
parrot climbs the bottle and at the top begins to work the wax seal away with its beak. The parrot
gets the wax off and uncorks the bottle like it's been training for this moment all its life. The
Rhythm Man smiles big and nods at the bird, pours two glasses for him and me.
"This is long overdue," he says. "I wanted this drink awhile back. But I showed up, your
legs gave up. I never drink alone."
I nod, smiling 'cause now I know I didn't imagine what I saw all those years ago.
The Rhythm Man takes a drink, points a finger at me. "You play a mean horn."
I lean over the table, talk low to the Rhythm Man. "That's the thing--"
I lean back, unsure of his answer to questions unspoken, worried his answer still applies
"Horace, you believe you're the only one to invite me over for a drink? I know what all
musicians want, the thoughts y'all think. The words from the crowd: your sound is stale. Ain't
I nod. "So I've heard."
"Every jazz- and bluesman I run across expects me to shit a tuba and tell them it's the
blessed horn of Gabriel. And if they play that shit-covered tuba, the sweetest sounds on Earth and
Heaven will erupt from it. No matter how sour a note you strike, the tone is right, the pitch is
perfect. You expect this?"
"Shitty horn that plays itself? I figure that'd be cheating. No, I can't say I was expecting
"Yet here we are." The Rhythm Man leans back, one hand on glass, the other indicating
the near-empty car that cuts in and out of vision as the lights flicker. "Me. You with wine,
pitching woo. So what you want?"
"You already gave me most of what I wanted, just you sitting here and having this drink
with a stale bluesman. Only want left is a song."
"Song is all," he says with a long frown. "And you call scoring a song from the Rhythm
Man, making your sound all fresh again, not cheating? What I get out of abetting your
"I'd trade in all the fame I ever earned as a bluesman for that song, if such a thing is
possible for a being such as yourself. And if you don't want that, those twenty bottles of the
finest wines I ever run across and anything else in my earthly possession is yours for it."
"Wait!" Something about the way he refuses tells me he's about to leave as quick as he
came. In my mind's eye, I see Charlie Pepper's horn bleat, relentless, senseless, fast, and the
crowds, the crowds growing, still growing, and they all keep in step with the beat. On top of all
that, I see my lip shake, my mouth fall off my horn, failing to say words like thank you, dumb to
all songs. I talk to keep him rooted, I'm not even sure what my mouth has to say. "Listen, I'm . . .
I'm afraid, Boss. They say the sounds I have are all dried up. I figure that many people can't be
wrong. Hell, some songs may just be plain beyond me. I can accept that mostly, even if it
happened a touch too soon. For this once I need it perfect, and to be able to hold that something
perfect with these two hands."
When I hold out my hands, the Rhythm Man lunges for them, locks on to them at the
wrist with an iron grip. He looks at me in silence. His cat's-eye pupils grow from slits to wide,
wide, wider, until I'm afraid they'll swallow me whole. Finally, he lets me go.
"I saw the two things you value. I took one. The song you want's in you, saw it like a
thirsty weed waiting for a few drops of water. Shame when outside there's all this rain. I watered
it for you, tuned it up a bit so now it's flawless. It's waiting for you. You just gotta unlock it."
"How?" I ask, my voice sounding desperate in my own ears.
"You busy listening for keys to open chords when you need to be looking," he says
putting a finger up to his green cat-eye, "for keys to open doors."
The lights flicker off and on, off and on, off and the Rhythm Man is gone. He's taken the
wine and the bottle-opening bird. I'm more concerned with what he's left, the notions tumbling
about inside my head.
He says I need to be looking, not listening. What else is rhythm besides motion? Guitar
strings getting plucked, piano keys getting pushed, horns like my horn blowing that syrupy-sweet
wind. There's nothing but work in the viewing; all the joy lives in the listening.
I look around the near-empty train car, my wineglass full to contrast the Rhythm Man's
empty one. Between the shuka-shacka shuka-shacka of the train, the lights flicker, flick, flick,
flicker, and I notice, once again, how the car's wood paneling, the forest green of the carpet
patterned with a subtle cream grid, it all matches the chair.
There it is. The key. Staring at me like the blank white space between black music notes.
What brings order to the eyes brings order to ears; harmony in what we see is melody in what we
I've seen music in the audience, written in attentive faces that have filled my horn with
both nervous fear and driving energy to make them cheer. It's reflected in the metronome, not
just the tick tick but the hand itself, waving back and forth, back and forth, like a crowd that's
lost in time and place and mind. It's in that smoke-filled room which sets the tone well before
this old horn groans and croons.
Music makes you feel; it paints scenes in living, breathing color. Hearing it is only the
vehicle, like this here train. Rhythm lives in all senses. It breathes in symmetry.
Before I know it, that whistle stabs out like mourning grief and the train grinds to a halt.
This is my stop. My feet know their way and don't need me to guide them, so I stay in my own
world, amused by my musings.
I stay entranced until my feet reach an old, worn walkway leading up to a single-story
shack. The crickets are chirping and the magnolia trees are slick, shining in the moonlight. I walk
up the path and creak open the screen door of my childhood home.
"Hattie? What's going on?" my father asks from the bedroom.
I go in there and put up a hand to silence our good neighbor Ms. Hattie, the only soul
who'd see after my father in my absence. I look at him in bed, the brown and black of his eyes
milky-pale now, ghosts that, despite their futility, still search in their perfect darkness for answers
out of habit.
I pull out my horn.
I think about the horn that ain't my horn, the storm of the crowd cheering for Charlie
Pepper's sound. This started before him yet started with him, so I go to play those jazz notes, his
fast notes that got me back to riding trains.
The sound is a squelch, miserable, pained as my lip convulses, revolts in revulsion
against this song that ain't my own. It only stops when I lower the horn.
My father tilts his head in my direction, listening for more through the quiet, dark space.
He just heard what Old Rhythm took from me, a special kind of heartbreak. There'll be no more
crowds for me. I nod in acceptance. I had it to give and as sure as I live, it's not what I asked for.
Once more, I raise my horn and take a breath. I breathe deep and reach, reach for the song that's
in me, that is me, the song that's my own.
In time with the crickets chirping outside, in sway with the slick magnolia leaves, I start
with the shuka-shacka shuka-shacka of the train, dash some flicker for the lights, put in the harsh
shush of the rain. My horn paints the scene, tells my father who I meet and what he drinks and
how he talks in tone and pitch.
My eyes well up when his tears start streaming but I keep going. The horn has to tell him
he wasn't crazy for his dream, that he had every right to pursue the perfect music upstream,
downstream, and upstream again. And that he wasn't crazy for passing that dream on to me. I
play the only thing I asked for, what the Rhythm Man gave me.
I play a song for my father.