(Note: On the occasion of Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday, I present this short story by my father. In his 30s and then in his 60s, my father made some forays into autobiographical writing. I’ve published other pieces previously, on my other blog. This story, set in the mid-1940s, was written around 1993. My father prefaced a collection of this and other pieces with a disclaimer: “The characters and events in these stories are imagined from memory. Any resemblance between these characters and real people is purely intentional, otherwise what is the point?” —BG)
by Paul A. Greenberg
Lola Hart lived in the Longwood section of town. Like her own prim appearance the apartment was neat and proper but spoke of no particular taste. She had found her way into the Boston jazz culture through her relationship with John Garrity. She adored him and he neither encouraged nor discouraged her. John was rich and radical and despised his family’s considerable real estate power. He did like to use the family money on those infrequent occasions when he could get his hands on it. I could accurately predict the current state of their relationship by the way Lola dressed. If John was around she wore dresses. When he was chasing some new romance she reverted to prim library skirts.
Lola was our crowd’s arbiter of disputes over words and facts. Her head seemed to be as full of information as the library was of books. In both cases there was no connection between any two items. They were just there on call. Once when Hennie and I were having a dispute over the meaning of the word “habitat” we called Lola at the library desk and asked her to use the word in a sentence. She replied, “there is nothing so natural as a habitat.”
I was Lola’s jazz instructor. She would invite me over for dinner usually when she wasn’t seeing John. I would bring records and attempt to explain the music. Mainly I just rhapsodized about my favorites. Between records and my word solos she would pour out her frustrations with John. We were on independent tracks. She would tell about her inability to tell John her feelings and I would tell that I dreamed I was Billie Holiday’s “Fine And Mellow” man.
Our tracks crossed only twice.
Early in her entry into our crowd, I was playing Jack Teagarden’s “Texas Tea Party” for her.
She asked the significance of “Tea Party.” I started to intellectualize the “significance” of marijuana in jazz culture and she started to giggle. When I tried to ask her what was funny, she fell into fits of laughter. And then we both laughed and laughed until we were gasping for breath.
Lola told of a party at John’s apartment. She was feeling hostess-like and had served beers and was making sandwiches when John asked her if she had seen the tea. She proceeded to look in every possible cabinet and drawer in the kitchen finding no pekoe nor other varieties of steeping beverage. Meanwhile John was getting more frantic and was looking under the living room couch pillows. By the time he looked in the globe of a lamp she castigated him for not keeping food in the kitchen where it belonged. She only now understood he was seeking a stash of pot.
A year later I was playing Billie Holiday for her. Her taste was more sophisticated and her pain over her relationship with John was showing in her eyes. They had recently gone to New Orleans for a week together. The by now usual pattern unfolded. The week had been bliss. They were close and everything took on the aura that lovers manufacture. She had not heard from him since they returned. I didn’t know how to help her so I played a record.
My choice was Billie Holiday’s “Fine And Mellow,” intended to be soothing. As Billie sang lack of concern over her man’s treatment of her because he physically loved her, Lola started to sob.
“Love is just like a faucet, it turns off and on,” Billie sang. “Love is like a faucet, it turns off and on/ Sometimes when you think its on, baby, it has turned off and gone.”
Lola’s sobs were now paroxysms. I was paralyzed. Then I put my arm around her and comforted her. I sat quietly holding her for over an hour.
Then the phone rang. Lola asked me to answer. It was John and he wanted to come over. She said I should arrange for us to meet at the Savoy Café.
Afterwards, we stayed up to five in the morning listening to Frankie Newton. Lola was as outgoing as I had ever seen her and John was as quiet as I had ever seen him.
Two weeks later they married.