From: The Buddha of Soulard by Neville Cole
Mardi Gras is winding down for the night. Geary St. is a ghost town.
“It’s Monday, okay, but this is bizarre,” thinks Buddha Bailey. He pronounces bizarre bee-zah in his head. Buddha likes making up new ways to say old words. He can’t hardly help it. For a moment Buddha stops in his track to ponder a realization: tomorrow’s the parade, the biggest day of the year. Could it be the whole of Soulard has gone home early to rest? That didn’t seem likely. Buddha never gave a thought about resting. Long after midnight, three hundred and sixty-five nights a year, you will find him wandering the streets of Soulard with his big bass drum, sound system, trumpet, ukulele, and assorted odds and sods in tow.
When Buddha reaches his mother’s door he takes things real slow. He cracks the door all silent like and avoids the light switch so as to avoid his ol’ Ma. Yeah, Buddha still lives at home. I don’t want to get into that right now. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s pretty late and very dark and maybe even that Buddha is a little tipsy. That’s why he’s trying to creep as quiet as a mouse, you see, but his damn Doc Martens they are squeaking with each timid little step (like mice, come to think of it), so Buddha, he figures he will kick them buggers off. Big mistake. How so? I’m trying to tell you. Picture this. Buddha is making his way, shoulder to the wall (again, much like a mouse would do), and, sure enough, just as mice often do when that travel this way, Buddha walks right into a trap.
Now, this is something I suggest you avoid if you can. In fact, one the last things you wanna be stepping on in socks is a rat trap. That thing snaps shut and Buddha hurls himself away from the wall and starts twirling round and round like of them whirling dervish fellas until he can’t spin no more and then, he topples. “Timber!” some subconscious lumberjack cries and, before he can right the ship, inertia takes over and crunch-snap-grunt-thump… Buddha Bailey is down but good.
“Don’t move!” a hysterical voice cries out from the void. “I’ve got a gun.”
Buddha makes out Ma, silhouetted in the faint moonlight glinting in at the end of the hall. She’s swinging something large and threatening around her head. Before he can think to speak, she clobbers him right on the noggin.
“Ow! Fuck Ma!” Buddha howls.
“David Patrick Bailey,” his mother screeches. “You scared me half to death!”
“You nearly beat me whole to death. Jesus, Ma! I’m bleeding here!”
“What are you doing creeping round in the middle on the night stinking like a sewer rat? And why didn’t you say it was you when I gave you the chance?”
“You call that a chance? That was assault and battery. You done brained me so bad I’ll bet I probly get some kinda syndrome.
“A couple of classes at community college and this one thinks he a lawyer,” Ma says all snide like. “Maybe if you hadn’t thrown away that scholarship you coulda been one; but you decided to be a street bum instead.”
Buddha got a feeling as soon as them words left her mouth Ma regretted saying them ‘cause she quickly changed the subject. “Get yourself into the kitchen and I’ll fix you up some comfort food,” says she. “I might as well put this frying pan to proper use now that I done got it out. You want some eggs and bacon, baby boy?”
“Mmm, okay,” Buddha replies and hauls himself up off the floor. Things were definitely getting worse round the Bailey place and things had never been good. But bacon sizzles and eggs bubble and Buddha’s skull throbs and those two miserable sods say nothing further until the midnight snack hits the table just out of Buddha’s reach. He leans over to grab it with a heavy sigh.
“What’s the matter with you now?” Ma snaps; then, without so much as a heartbeat she yaps on and on: “I swear to Jesus in heaven,” says she, “I never did see such mope in my life.” Ma sits down to the table and lights up a smoke.”
“Nothing’s the matter, Ma,” Buddha lies, “I just got things on my mind is all.” Then he starts up to go grab a beer but crazy old Ma she beats him to it.
“Sit. You eat. I’ll fetch you a beer,” says she. “It’s the least I can do, I suppose.” Mean ‘ol Ma is out of her chair and to the fridge before you can say Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Well, before Buddha could anyways. He always did have trouble with that bloody stupid word. “How’s that head of yours?” Ma says as sweet as parsnip (that is, not too bloody sweet-ha ha). “Has the bleeding stopped? she adds.”
“I’m fine,” Buddha mumbles. ‘Cause honest how he gonna stay mad with a big plate of bacon sitting under his chin?
“Well, just maybe I knocked some sense into you.” Ma says as she sets a beer in his vicinity and drops a half-smoked, still burning butt near an already overloaded ashtray. Buddha never seen her like this in years. You would of thunk she was conducting Beethoven’s Fifth with all the waving and pointing she was carrying on with.
“Anyway, I glad we got this chance to talk. There’s something I’ve been waiting to tell you all day long,” says Ma. “I was speaking today to that nice Mr. Fletcher, today. The one from bingo?” She looks at Buddha like he should know all them idiots who go down the Lafayette Bingo Hall of a Wednesday; but he just shrugs so she goes on. “He owns that Fletcher’s Pawn” says she, “and he’s looking for someone just like you to help him out. Isn’t that the most wonderful news?”
All Buddha could hear was “Dah dah dah duuuummm. Dah dah dah duuuummm.” But once he figured she had finally shut up and was waiting on him to speak, he goes: “I got plenty of jobs, Ma.” Buddha is sucker for punishment you probably noticed. What they call a sadocist.
“I’m talking regular employment, Buddha” she starts up again. Doris Bailey only calls her son Buddha when she’s trying to butter him up. She’s such a broken record, he can’t even listen no more but she goes on conducting nevertheless. “This is a real job, Buddha. Not that two-bit hustling you get up to every night. Besides, this is a day job. You can carry on with all that other business any time you want.”
Buddha can’t but help himself, and he tries to explain to her one more time: “Things are just starting to come together for me, Ma.” Says he, sweet as can be. “They might hire me and the Soulard Swing as a regular band at Big Daddy’s after tomorrow. I done a tryout tonight already.”
“And what will that pay, pray tell?” Ma snaps. “All the beer you can drink?” Meanwhile I’m left keeping the lights on on my disability alone? I already told you. You can get up to whatever mischief you want nights and weekends but you are going to see Frank Fletcher tomorrow and get yourself an honest income ‘cause I’m here to tell you the gravy train has left the station. It’s time for you to pull your own weight.”
At the mention of weight Buddha stops ‘cause he knows that a punchline is soon to follow. And sure enough after two beats she adds: “All two tonnes of it…or whatever you up to now!” Bah-dum-dum.
Buddha don’t like fat jokes. He sits in silence and imagines he’s alone. This trick sometimes gets her to leave the room; but not tonight.
“Well?” says Ma.
“I can’t go down tomorrow. It’s parade day, Ma! I’ll pull in two hunderd easy. I’ll see that Mr. Fletcher fella right after Mardi Gras, I promise.”
“Mardi Gras ain’t nothing special, you know,” says the all-knowing, all seeing St. Doris. “It’s not Christmas day. It’s just an excuse to get drunk instead of going to work. You want to do something special tomorrow? Get yourself out of bed bright and early and go see Mr. Fletcher first thing, ‘cause I’m telling you right now, if you don’t…well, you don’t have bother coming home again.”
There’s no point arguing anymore once she’s dropped the “don’t bother coming home again” line. Buddha knows least that much by now. So he just say, “fine,” and push himself back from the table. “I’ll drop by and talk to him in the morning,” he says as he head out the door. “I just hope he don’t mind me wearing my parade day get up.”
Buddha’s already out the door and she don’t try following him. Still, he can hear her screeching down the hall. “You’re not even a real Catholic, you know. Well, I don’t think you are, anyway. Who knows for sure? Mardi Gras…” Ma says bitterly. Ain’t even a real holiday.”
“Thanks, Ma!” Buddha calls back happily. “Good talk.” Then, before she can say another word, he shuts the door behind him. Peace at last.
Like a smoker desperate for a puff, Buddha whips out his ukulele. It’s the only thing he’s allowed to play this late at night. Ma cries out again at the very first strum: “And don’t stay up all night plunking that damn ukulele,” she bitches. “I’m not deaf, you know. I’m blind.”
“Blind my foot,” Buddha says so quiet only ghosts and spirits could hear. “You don’t miss a thing.” With that he sits up, puts down the uke, reaches for his pen and writes.
Mean Ma’s Swing he jots. Then he scribbles a call and response. She blind as a bat / But she don’t miss a thing / Hold on to ya hat / When that Mean Ma Swings! It weren’t going to be easy for the Soulard Swing to record this. It will probably take three dozen takes at least. But, Buddha knows: if you’re gonna be a one man jazz band you got to have plenty of patience, perfect timing, and you got to know how to swing.