I couldn’t remember the song. It had been belted out by the battered soul of a woman, whose name I forget. We had listened to it together since before we were forced to notice -the difference between boy and girl. It poured over us from the boom box in his backyard tree or the stereo in my mother’s purple house -the one after divorce number three. As a child, the singer had danced on the streets of Chattanooga in the early 1900‘s, busking with her brother. So we’d done the same on the corner of Bluebonnet and Main, out by the old water tower, where the roller rink used to be. We got a dollar once and a warm stick of gum.
For some reason, I remember that.
When we were a bit older, at the age still caught between the world of wishes and regrets, he hummed it out loud, serenading the sauce as he seasoned and stirred and stewed. When he was in a particularly good mood, high on the feeling he might finally tell people who -he really was, he’d belt out the occasional sentence or word. “I love his cabbage gravy, his hash, crazy ‘bout his succotash.” Then we’d both laugh, at the song, at life, at the absurdity of it all.
Later it was Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, anything that made us feel. The music was languid, and rich, outlined in the dim and darker hues of life, the pointless riffs we found ourselves in. We pondered the act. Questioned the mysterious adaptation of our stories, our heartaches, our lives -that, too our surprise, had been translated into songs a hundred years before we’d lived. How did a people of an unfair, unjust, unfathomable era of cruelty and hate, know us so well?
“They were persecuted.” He had said, “They were beaten, raped, pushed to defeat, for something of which they had no control…all because of other peoples fears.”
He had sauntered to my bookcase, martini in hand with pinky raised proudly in the air and ran his finger along the portrait of Martin Luther King.
“He’d understand.” He’d said, “He wouldn’t mind. Me.”
I didn’t mind. It just did no good. To wish he’d see me, the way I saw him, for he never could. I wasn’t naive, I didn’t stare through heart shaped eyes. He loved me but it was of friendship, of shared story, of time.
There was once, on his couch, after a long night of music and lights. I had set down my drink on top of a tank of fish, making pouty faces at his angels, running my finger along the glass leaving it smeared with my prints. He stood in the doorway and laughed as he took off his coat, his muscles clinging to his lucky concert tee. I had slipped off my heels. We swayed and danced and listened to Lionel Richie and laughed. We landed on the couch, both exhausted and lonely from the search.The hunt that kept our belly’s empty, our beds soft with tears. He had leaned in to push a stray hair from my eye, and our lips touched, I can’t even remember why, or who was the one to move that extra inch. He had jumped back as if stung, and then smiled at our folly. But I knew then, my heart would die with him.
At the funeral it was Billie Holiday. I’ll Be Seeing You. It was sadness through and through, nothing about his light could be found in that song -there was too much wading to do. It was impossible to breath or swallow, listening to her voice. Someone had tied a rope around my neck, his smell still hung about me like a noose. Silly song. How could you find him through the morning sun? It was a lie. Or maybe it was true. It was too early to tell. All I knew for sure, was this was the saddest song I’d ever heard.
Sadder still then when we listened to it together on his lovers couch, the night he’d found out he’d left.
Sadder still then when he found out he was going to die.
Sadder still because I now listened alone, without his body next to mine, without my other half.
“Excuse me?” His sister. All fake hair, fake nails, fake pleasantry.
“Can you remember that song he used to sing all the time? I think it was his favorite. Though we never knew why.”
Sure. “The one he used to season his sauce.” I say.
“Um, yeah? Maybe.” She couldn’t wait to get away.
“My Kitchen Man. Besse Smith.”
“Right. My Kitchen Band. Thank you.”
Jesus. They’d never get it.
His mother walks past, overhearing, and tries to crack a smile, makeup settling into the lines around an angry mouth, that opened much wider than her mind. She puts a white gloved hand on my shoulder, the weight of which I barely feel.
“I believe he said that song was from the 20‘s? I never could understand what he saw in it. Well…goodbye. Do keep in touch won’t you?” She turns and walks quickly away, leaving a wake of Chanel Number Five, sweat and relief trailing behind.
My Kitchen Man. That was it. My Kitchen Man.
Once the room is vacant of the unimportant, the mean, the superfluous family that fate bore him too. I walk to the front and peer inside. He lies in a suit of grayish blue, with made up face to match. They’ve powdered his bald head, used too much rouge on his cheeks, and drawn in brows; one is the silhouette of a gulls wing in flight, the other more rounded, like a small black frown. His mouth is straight and tight, a thin line of secrets kept.
He would have hated the effect. I wonder about the note he’d given to his mom, the directions on how this was to go. This was not it, this was not his show. He had wanted the casket closed, so folks would remember his good looks, not the painted shell of a man. Under the lid, he wanted to wear white, like the bride he’d never be. And lilies, he’d wanted those, not these tiresome chrysanthemums the color of dirty snow.
He is nowhere here. Except in the lingering memories that now stomp on my wilted heart. I lean in, stroke his hand, take a breath of the delicate porcelain air and smell the faintest hint of sauce.
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