A Short Story by Jack Coey
It was the smell that did it. The guy in the next room thought it was rotting food or maybe cat shit. It got stronger and stronger. He watched to see if he could see the man coming or going to his room, but didn’t. He saw the cop on the street, and one day told him about it.
They stood in front of the door and the cop said, Dead body.
The man was shocked. The cop called down to the station and before long an ambulance arrived. Two police cars showed up, they broke down the door and sure enough there was a body lying on the bed. There was no sign of a struggle or violence, and nobody knew who the deceased was. The cops looked for forced entry or robbery and found nothing. The ambulance men took the body to the morgue. The cops opened the two windows and said it may take a couple of days to get the smell out.
A week later the man was coming back to his room when he saw an old lady in a wrinkled blue dress standing at the foot of the stairway leading to the rooms. She wore a blue hat with a feather. He stopped, looked at her, she looked back at him, and he asked, Help you?
I was looking for someone.
Do you know his room number?
I’m sorry. He’s deceased.
The woman was stricken. He moved to hold her. He took her arm and she began to cry.
Too late. Oh. Too late.
He held her and didn’t know what to do. Then he decided on the bar on the corner. He could get her coffee and he could have a beer.
Could I buy you a coffee?
She nodded her head. When they entered the cronies at the bar all turned and looked at them, and one of the men yelled out, Hey, Dugan, got yourself a hot one!
The men laughed. Dugan led her to a corner table. He got her seated and went to the bar and whispered to Dutch, Help me out with this babe and I’ll explain later.
Dugan returned to the table with a cup of coffee and a bottle of beer. She wanted milk so Dugan went back to Dutch for a carton of milk. The old woman was lost in thought. They sat at the table in silence and from the corner of his eye, Dugan could see the cronies at the bar watching them.
Who were you looking for?
A man named Stokes.
How’d you know he lived in twenty-three?
Daryl told me.
You sound like you’re from down south.
Yes sir. Tennessee. Much obliged for the coffee.
Don’t mention it.
I’ll get out of your hair. Took too much of your time already.
No, no, not at all. Who are you?
I appreciate your kindness, sir, but I don’t want to be no bother.
Looks to me like you could answer some questions.
Don’t do no good. Harlan’s gone.
That was his name? Harlan?
Yes, sir. Harlan Stokes, the greatest guitar picker of his generation.
Really? I never heard of him.
Yes, sir, that there’s the tragedy. You should have.
I always heard music from his room.
That’d be Harlan.
She looked at Dugan defying him to disbelieve her.
I’ll get the Nashville bus this afternoon.
How about a sip of Old Grand Dad?
A smile spontaneously flickered on the old woman’s face.
I don’t drink whisky with strangers.
I’m Cormack Dugan. Go by the name Dugan. There now, we’re friends.
The smile was there again.
I’m Mildred Stokes, pleased to meet you.
The pleasure’s mine. How about a sip of bourbon in your coffee?
Mildred looked hard at Dugan.
No harm in it, I reckon. I don’t have anything you want.
Mildred, you can trust me. I’m only trying to find out about this stranger who lived next to me. I would pass him in the hall or on the stairway and sometimes he would nod, but most times not.
Mildred looked at Dugan and he got up with her cup and went to Dutch. He came back and sat at the table. A shaft of sun came through the window. Dugan looked at Mildred. She was far away in memory.
Mildred, can I ask you some questions?
I suppose if it would settle your mind.
He was a guitar player?
Yes sir, he was. I’ve known him fifty years. We were teenagers when we first knew each other. He was the most talented guitar player you ever heard, an absolute genius. He grew up on a farm in Kentucky and his father was a stern man who did nothing to help Harlan with his music. When I first knew him, he was struggling to come to terms with his talent. His father wanted him to be a poor farmer, the way he was, and Harlan felt he had talent, felt there was more he could do. He broke away from his father, ran away to Nashville, where he got work as a sideman. It was there he met Elvis. They were both talented teenagers who became like brothers.
Elvis Presley? That guy was a friend of Elvis Presley?
More like brothers I would say. Harlan helped him write some of them songs.
As I live and breathe.
Elvis took Harlan with him to New York City in the summer of 1956 to record Don’t Be Cruel and Hound Dog. Harlan told me Elvis did twenty-eight takes of Cruel before he was happy with it.
Harlan said he was never so sick of a song in his life. Then they did thirty takes of Hound Dog before he was happy with that.
No, sir, God’s Honest Truth.
How come I don’t know about this guy?
Mildred became serious and far away. She sipped her coffee.
Dugan took her cup to Dutch who made another cocktail. Mildred was in her memory. They sat in silence, in the sun.
We was married for about three years, and even though I loved him, I couldn’t stay with him. He was tormented.
She took a sip of her coffee.
Tormented? By Elvis?
Mildred took off her hat and put it on the table.
No. By the south.
Dugan didn’t get it. He stood up and went to the jukebox. In a moment, Love Me Tender was playing.
It was just recently I was at Wilber Jenkins’s death bed when I learned what happened that night. I work as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home in Murfreesboro.
Dugan leaned forward.
The men were drinking one night and there was a pretty Negro girl who lived in the black section of town. One of the men made an advance and was rebuffed. The more the men drank the angrier the man got and I’m sure the other men were egging him on. I always believed Harlan was a part in this. They found the girl on a country road walking home from choir practice, and dragged her in the woods and raped her, then lynched her from a tree.
Mildred was quiet.
As God is My Witness, those were horrible days in the south.
The sun went away.
Dugan went to Dutch for another beer. He came back to the table and they sat in silence and shadow.
Come to find out, Harlan never touched that girl. Don’t mean he shouldn’t tried to stop it or say something when it was over, but folks always thought he was a much a part of it as the others and he wasn’t. Wilber Jenkins told me he stood there dumbstruck and done nothin’. He never said a word to anyone as far as I know and it ate him up. I couldn’t live with him no more. He would be in a rage over nothing. It got to the point I couldn’t keep food down or sleep or nothing.
The clack of pool balls could be heard. Dugan sipped from his beer.
He went from band to band and nobody could be around him for any length of time. He was either depressed or in a fury. Then the alcohol and the drugs and the women, Good Lord, I can only imagine. He finally came to Boston when he burned all his bridges, and I can’t recall how many musicians tried to help him. There was a lot of them.
The bar was silent as the men studied the pool table.
Yes, sir, I would say so.
So why now?
Why are you looking for him at this point?
Mildred sipped her coffee and wistfully smiled.
I don’t know that I know. I reckon I wanted to say to him that I knew he never touched that girl. That doesn’t excuse the rest of it that he let it go on and didn’t tell no one. That’s more shame than I want in my life, that’s for sure, but, I guess cause I loved him or still love him, that I wanted him to know that I knew he never touched that girl, and that would bring him some measure of forgiveness.
How’d you find him after all this time?
Daryl told me where he was. Daryl was his first music teacher in school, and Harlan always stayed in touch with him, probably, for the good memory it give him.
They didn’t speak. They could hear the clack of pool balls and laughter and some raised voices.
What a waste.
Yes, sir that is surely true. Life can be death if you let it.