Oh, Josephine

by Dennis Must



"Nobody could answer with any degree of certainty why Buddy Hart did it ... Twenty years old, hayseed-white with a libido laugh ..."

Nobody could answer with any degree of certainty why Buddy Hart did it. Twenty years old, hayseed-white with a libido laugh, a rhythm-and-blues keyboardist who owned a steady gig at the Hi-way Roller Dome on the Hammond B3 five nights a week, then crossed over to piano at the Bluebird where Cleveland's black jazz aficionados gathered on weekends. Even drove an indigo wood 'n' steel Chrysler Town & Country convertible without missing a payment.

But Buddy Hart felt branded.

He lived just above the Chesapeake & Ohio switching yard in East Niles. Municipal plumbing stopped one mile west in Danville, and the drains from his house and each of his neighbors' emptied into an open gutter alongside Deforest Road. Across the tracks sat a block of inconspicuous, soot-impregnated bungalows, the site of Ohio's more notorious cathouses. Buddy's mother and grandmother ran the cleaning concession.

The prodigy came by his talent mysteriously -- at the age of five sat down at the Gospel Tabernacle upright in Bible School and began belting out facsimiles of "Bo Weevil" and "Walking To New Orleans" Fats Domino tunes. Rupert, his old man, announced that Buddy was, "the Hart's ticket out of East Niles," and the following Monday had an old Kimball with a few ivories missing proudly installed in their living room. Now, a decade and one half later, Buddy, with a permanent trailer hitched to his Chrysler, carted the Hammond gig to gig. Never did learn how to read music.

During his teens, several of his friends on the street caught the motorcycle craze sweeping the Midwest, either tearing the bikes apart or rebuilding them in ramshackle garages behind their houses, then backfiring up and down Deforest Road late into the night. Buddy acquired an old jury-rigged Indian. Rupert and Myra, Buddy's mother, worried themselves sick about him damaging his piano hands. The clique grandstanded by riding the tracks down at the freight yard. The trick was to place a live motorcycle on a single track, then see how far and fast you could ride it before the bike veered off onto the ballast or crossties. The neighbors began to bet money on the events. Buddy once kept the Indian on the polished rail clear up to Warren -- a mile and a half north up the Mosquito Lake bed. By nighttime, however, you could hear him beating out the barrelhouse tunes while Rupert and Myra rocked on the front porch swing, a thin wall away from their golden boy.

So there was no question that he was going to get out of East Niles and pull his family along with him. One day they would be listening to him over the airwaves. Might even see him in a picture show.

Perhaps that was the genesis of his obsession, reasoning it would be one thing if he stayed back in East Niles, married a neighbor girl, and got a job at Kennicut Copper like his father, a crane-handler, had. But Buddy Hart was destined for a house with plumbing, tailored suits, and a woman from Sandusky where all the wealth lay like some colossal liner, beguiling and luxurious. Well, perhaps that's why he began fixating about it.

Rupert couldn't quite believe the question. "Are you shitting me?"

"I ain't."

"What's wrong with it? Looks fine to me."

"Yeah, maybe to you. But it's a stigma."

"What do you mean, a stigma?"

"A stain of disgrace, a tattoo or something that labels me a gully-jumper. Like somebody stamped me."

"Jesus Christ, Buddy ... my old man, your uncles ... nobody I've ever known done any different. If you got the cohones to ask your mother -- and she can find it in her soul to be frank with you -- well, this is a damn happy family, boy! Until now maybe. You thinking maybe we should have done something different?"

"I'm saying I don't want to go out there into the world smelling of Deforest Road. I won't have the mark of East Jesus on my forehead."

"Forehead!"

"Well, you know what I mean."

Rupert pulled out a cigarette. Buddy lit it for him. "What do you plan on doing about it now, son?"

"Going to talk to Doc Green ... tomorrow."

"Let me ask you something." Rupe's face flushed. "Did Wylie's daughter say something to you?" (Edgar Wylie, father of Buddy's current flame, owned the Pontiac dealership in Warren, and they did reside in Sandusky.)

"She has no idea."

"Don't bullshit me now. I'm your father -- but we're men before we're anything else, remember, Buddy."

"My word."

"Is she why you're thinking about doing this?"

"Like I said, Buddy Hart's leaving Whistle Stop, clean. I don't want to be marked."

Doc Green's office was situated above a convenience store in the one-block commercial section of East Niles. Shine's Tavern, Tip-Top Bakery outlet and a beauty salon tucked in among several used car lots and auto repair shops. He treated his clientele like a cross between medical doctor and alcohol-on-the-breath priest. Doc tended to take no matter too seriously, and did minor surgery in his office. Lilly, who had some nursing home experience, masked up for the occasions, while Green administered chloroform or ether to his trusting patients, many of whom kept a tab as sizable as the one they ran up on the grocery store's books. And when Buddy walked in, Green's eyes lit up.

"Bo Weevil, damn if you aren't one of the lucky ones!"

Buddy liked the Doctor's happy mien. "Howyadoin, Doc?"

"Getting your ass out of this crossroads. I don't expect to see you loitering out in front of Shine's, coming in here telling me you knocked up lissome Sarah Tisdale. 'Do you got any of them pills, Doc?' Or working over at Rank's bank, shining the ass on your gabardines like the rest of us mortals. Your poor old man's inhaled enough godforsaken sulphur over at the refinery for all of us. How is he, Buddy?"

"He's fine, Doc. Same as ever."

"And your Ma?"

"Still complaining ... and washing cathouse laundry on weekends."

Doc Green winced. He'd been there in dual capacity.

"What can I do for you, son?"

Buddy got right to the issue, telling Doc Green how he thought it wasn't the fault of anybody. "The East Jesus stigma ... you know. Can you help me, Doc?"

Green got up, went to the cupboard, opened it, while Buddy surveyed the iodine-brown bottles with cork stoppers on the shelves. A veritable pharmacopoeia. Green pulled one off the top shelf, placed two shot glasses on his desk. "Bourbon, son -- the best. You going to another place, another country, stepping up to better circumstances, then you better learn the finest. Salud."

Buddy shivered as it rolled down his throat.

"I can perform the operation. We'll do it right here. Lilly Shine will have to assist. You don't mind her knowing, do you?"

"Is she a quiet one, Doc?"

"Lilly knows every damn secret in town." He chortled to himself. "She wouldn't even tell Al."

"How do I have to prepare?"

"Not a thing. Just haul your young ass in here next Tuesday at nine, I'll put you under, and you will be driving up Deforest Road by ten-thirty."

"Sounds like getting a tooth pulled, Doc."

"Decent analogy. Our father and uncles never knew any better."

"Do you mind my asking a personal question?"

"Shoot."

"How 'bout you?" Buddy gestured awkwardly. "Did you ..."

The Doc smiled cagily. "Al Shine didn't put that peppermint glow on Lilly's face."

For the next several days it seemed everybody in Buddy's house spoke in riddles. He announced Doc Green was operating on him the following Tuesday, but nobody was sure why, except Rupert and his mother. And they were ashamed, if the truth be told. He hadn't intended it to be this way. But that's how it was turning out.

He told his girlfriend, Miss Wylie, he had to have a knee repaired. Fallen off the Indian a year back during one of those competitions. He'd be off his feet for a few days. Buddy's younger brother, Darius, had gone with him on his first visit to Dr. Green, sat in the car. Even during that trip back home, Buddy was elliptical.

"What's wrong with you, Buddy?"

"Ain't nothin' wrong with me ... or you, for that matter. Can't really talk about it now. But I will someday, when you're old enough."

"Why all the mystery, Buddy?" Darius had just turned fourteen.

"You know what goes on behind Rupe and Myra's door every night, Darius?"

"Nope."

"You can guess, though, huh?"

"Don't interest me enough."

"Like I said. Let's just say I'm getting my leg repaired."

"What's wrong with your leg, Buddy?"

"Bone has to be adjusted." Buddy turned the radio up loud. "Hello, Josephine" was playing.

Tuesday morning Darius asked to accompany Buddy to Doc Green's. Not wanting Rupert or Myra to accompany him, Buddy agreed. "It's a man's thing," he muttered. Again, Darius waited in the Chrysler reading comic books. Buddy walked into Doc Green's office humming a tune, and less than an hour later strolled out ... "You used to use my umbrella every time it rained ... and holler Woo woo woo." He climbed into the car.

"Where are your crutches?" Darius asked.

"Crutches?"

"You know, for your leg."

Buddy laughed and pressed his foot on the starter. "Don't feel a thing."

"What happened?"

"Lilly Shine was suited up like in a white beauty-parlor costume wearing a mask and rubber gloves, and Doc had this barber's jacket on and wearing gloves, too. Took me into a white closet next to his smoky office, laid me on what looked like one of your library tables at school, tucked a souvenir cushion under my head -- Niagara Falls --then Lilly slipped my trousers off."

"Yeah?"

"'You won't feel a thing,' Doc said, and put this rubber mask over my face. It had an air-pump hose connected to some green cylinders and smelled like strong cleaning solution to me, stronger than what Mama uses at the notcheries, and the next thing I knew -- I was riding my Indian down the Chesapeake line on a sunny day. Sunlight glancing off the polished rail damn near blinded me. I was having trouble keeping the motorcycle balanced, feeling like I was going to tumble off ... but instead of falling headfirst onto the crossties, it was like I was going to fall into eternity ... just blue sky with no clouds, no earth. Scary... but dreamy, too."

"Jesus. Did you feel any pain? Did they have knives and things out on the table?"

"No pain. None at all. And the knives I never saw. But he took Jack Perkins' leg off in that very same room a few year back when Jack fell drunk on the tracks and the 10:08 to Ashtabula didn't do the job completely. Lot of cuttin' has gone on in there. But, shit, Darius, I don't feel a damn thing." Buddy turned onto Deforest. "Hello, Josephine. How do you do? Do you remember me, baby, like I remember you?"

"Is your leg bandaged up?"

"Oh, it's bandaged up all right."

"Can I see it?"

"When it's healed, I'll show you. Not before." The brothers remained stone silent the remainder of the fifteen-minute trip.

In the driveway, Myra waited alongside her neighbors, Genevieve Glaxson and her married daughter, Nell. Buddy stepped out of the car like nothing happened.

"Did you go?" Myra asked astonished.

"Yeah, he went," Darius answered.

"Well, did Doc Green do anything?"

Buddy smiled, put his arm around his mother's shoulder. "Did it all, Ma. East Niles is back in sawbones' waste can. But I'm hungry as a horse."

Myra gestured to the two women that she'd meet up with them later, and, bemused, walked into the kitchen behind Buddy. He asked for scrambled eggs and bacon. "While you're gettin' it ready, Ma, I'm just going in here to lie down for a bit." Buddy poured himself a cup of coffee and went into the living room. Darius followed and sat at his brother's feet on the end of the sofa. Hardly five minutes passed before Darius could see Buddy begin to sweat heavily.

"You all right, Buddy?"

"Yeah ... yeah, I'm all right."

Buddy began to unbutton his trousers.

"You gonna show me the operation, Buddy?"

Buddy had begun to groan and wasn't speaking now ... ever so cautiously easing his trousers off his hips. Darius moved closer. "Oh, for chrissake! Please don't move. Don't move the fucking sofa ... MA!"

Myra rushed into the room. Buddy jerked board-stiff, his back arched and his legs out before him on the sofa, his pants down to his knees ... still wearing Y fronts. Darius and Myra saw it seeping through his crotch. A circle about the size of an eye and growing.

"Help me, OH GOD ... HELP ME! GET my trunks off me. MA! Cut them away from me. Jesus Christ, I'm dying!"

Darius and Myra eased Buddy onto the living room floor and Myra removed his shoes, sliding his trousers off him. Buddy hammered his fists against the floor, crying for her to drop his trunks. Darius could see nothing wrong with his legs. Myra rushed out of the room and returned with her pinking sheers, snipping the jockey shorts in two at his hip, tenderly peeling them off his genitalia. Buddy's swathed member oozed crimson.

"MA! Do something. Get me ice, put a fan on it!"

Darius fetched ice and Myra placed a cold compress to her son's head.

Rupert appeared in the doorway. "Doc Green told us to expect this," he drawled, and sat on the sofa watching his eldest writhe and groan on the floral carpet. "Exactly like he said -- 'The boy's gonna step out of his car like a cock of the walk, Rupe ... but in minutes he'll be parading the East Jesus secret to the world. It's just gonna take time. Let him drink whiskey and thump on the walls.

"'Ain't natural for a man to get that operation twenty years after the fact. God bless him. But in one week he'll look like all the other pricks in Sandusky County.'"


Dennis Must is founder-editor of Flying Horse, an alternative literary journal. His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway, and he has published, or forthcoming, work in Red Hen Press' Fiction 2000, Writer's Forum, Salt Hill Journal, Sun Dog—The Southeast Review, Southern Indiana Review, Red Rock Review, Blue Moon Review, CrossConnect, and many other literary journals and anthologies. He was awarded First Place in The Alsop Review's 1999, Taproot Literary Journal's 1998 and The Oval's 1996 fiction contests.

A collection of his short stories, BANJO GREASE (Creative Arts), will be published in spring of 2000. He resides in Massachusetts with his wife and two teenage daughters.





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