Larissa’s Friday Night Earthquake introduces eight new emotional stories with compelling characters vying for glory, atonement, or redemption any way they can find it.Sometimes brooding, often heart-rending, always impassioned, the tales within offer a glimpse into the American struggle and reveal truths we don’t always expect—or admit.

Midnight Blues    
 

    “Midnight Blues. You got Mamie.”
    “Hi. Uh, is this Mamie?” Mamie couldn’t help but grin at the familiar sound of a twenty-first-century caller in shock that he actually reached not only a live human being at a radio station but the host of the show that was currently on the air.
    “Live and loud, sweetie.”
    “Wow. Cool. We uh…we really missed you.” The wavering voice was a young one.
    “Thank you, sweetie. That means a lot. What can I play for ya?”
    “Listen, Mamie, I just want to say that uh...well I mean, it’s not like I know you, but I’m really sorry for…you
know, your loss.”
    Mamie knew the polite thing to do would be to hold the moment with a dramatic pause of silence, the kind that hung in the space between her and the unknown caller just to the point of being uncomfortable. Her husband deserved that. Her son did, too. But she couldn’t bear the thought of breaking down on the air and instead took a drag from her cigarette and quickly fired back.
    “Thank you, sweetie. How about some Muddy Waters to carry us both to the other side?”    
    “That would—yeah Muddy Waters is cool.”
    “We’ll do ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ real soon. Thanks for listening.”
    She pushed the button that dumped the call, then brought on the next.
    “Midnight Blues. You got Mamie.”
    “We love you, Mamie. We’re so glad you’re back.” This voice was female and experienced.
    “Thank you, sweetie. It’s good to be back.”
    “I don’t even have a request. Everything you play is great. I love the stories you tell about each song, especially the one for the last song of the night. I stay up for that one.”
    “I do it for you, sweetie, and we’ll spin a few words ‘bout Willie Dixon this hour. Thanks for listening.”  
    Another drag from her smoke. Another caller.
    “Midnight Blues. You got Mamie.”
    “Mamie, I’ve been a fan of the show for years. I’m a long time listener…”
    “And a first-time caller?” She normally refrained from finishing her caller’s sentence, even when it was obvious.
    “Guilty as charged.”
    “What’s your name, sweetie?” Mamie wasn’t playing favorites. She had long since made a habit of asking the name of every third caller.
    “Frank. And I gotta say, I dig that you still spin vinyl on the air. Nothing like a good record.”
    “It’s the only way I know and the only way I go, sweetie. Thanks for calling, Frank. What can I play to set the midnight mood?”
    “Well, in honor of your return to the air, how about some Mamie Smith? Let’s get back to the roots of the blues.”
    “Someone’s been doing his homework.”
    “You told the story two years ago,” Frank said. “Your mom had just passed away and you told us about how she named you after the first African American to make a blues recording. The year was…oh, I wanna say 1920.”
    “And what was the song?” Mamie’s voice held a certain playful tone as she hoped her question would steer Frank toward blues trivia and away from the painful memory of her mother.
    “‘Crazy Blues.’ Perry Bedford.”
    “I am impressed, Frank. We’ll roll that song this hour. Thanks for listening.”
    “Thanks for coming back, Mamie. I can only imagine how tough this last year has been for you.”
    Mamie paused to gather herself.
    “Your support means a lot, Frank. Thanks for listening.”
 She dumped the call, stamped the first Kool of the night in the ashtray next to console and leaned into the mic.
    “You’re listening to Midnight Blues on WMLN. I’m your host, Mamie Rogers and for the next hour I’ll be taking your requests, so reach out to me the old fashioned way, ‘cuz the only social network I know how to work holds court in a bar that still lets you smoke. So let’s blaze up the first hour of the show with this little joint from the 1970 movie Chicago Blues. It’s the live version of ‘The First Time I Met The Blues’ by Mr. George ‘Buddy’ Guy.”
     Mamie closed her eyes and let the piercing guitar licks fill the room. Her nerves had steadied, the way they usually did when Buddy Guy was in her ears. She opened her eyes and found the framed picture of her family next to the mixing console just as the pioneering bluesman howled into the microphone.
    The first time I met the blues…
    Had it really been a year? Her fans had missed her, at least the ones who cared enough to call in did. They meant well. They were harmless and clueless, but they meant well.
    Mamie had spent half of the time since her last broadcast trying to convince herself that Jerome and Darren would have wanted her to keep the show going. She spent the other half trying to convince herself she had nothing to do with the accident that took her husband and only son. It was pure coincidence. Did she really believe it? When she was sober she did. The more she drank the more she wondered if her playing the song really did have something to do with it.  She wasn’t with her family when their car hydroplaned from its lane and crashed head on into another vehicle. She was in this very studio, closing her show with a song she’ll forever associate with tragedy.
    As Buddy Guy wrapped up the first tune of the evening, Mamie stamped out her cigarette and spoke into the mic.        
    “From the 1970 documentary Chicago Blues directed by Harley Cokeliss, that was Buddy Guy with my favorite version of ‘The First Time I Met the Blues.’ The film offered a look into the working-class lives of the windy city’s bluesmen and presented a portrait of struggle, inequality, and the will of artistic spirit to explain it all as the blues has done for the American negro since the days of the spiritual hymn.” Mamie paused to light another smoke.
    “A lot of you have called in to extend your condolences. If we were all in the same bar, the next round would be on me.” Another toke. Another cloud exhaled.
    “I’ve tried to explain a lot to myself in the year I’ve been away from this show. And any answers I’ve found point back to me being right here leaning over the mic with a Kool in one hand and the next record in the other. I can’t explain why we suffer the way we do any better than you can. All we can do is lament and keep moving. So let’s move on with a man from Mississippi who grew up to become the man many consider to be the father of modern Chicago Blues. Recorded on the Chess label in 1956, here is Muddy Waters with ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights.’”
    Mamie dropped the needle and closed her eyes as the song’s opening vocals shook the studio walls.
    Forty days…and forty nights…since my baby left this town.
     She opened her eyes and locked them on her husband in the picture next to the console.
    Sun shinin’ all day long…but the rain
keep
coming down.
    The windows to Jerome’s soul always held a mystery that Mamie had taken great joy in realizing wasn’t hers to completely decipher. Sometimes his eyes could be playful. Other times they were romantic. When the world was particularly harsh they could be cut from stone. But in this moment, the moment Mamie had chosen to carry her through the first broadcast since the accident, they were warm.
    She’s my life I need her soul…and why she left I just don’t know.
    The glowing call light broke Mamie from her trance. As Muddy Waters closed out his song, she leaned into the mic.
    “That was Muddy Waters with a ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’,  recorded in 1956 on the Chess Label. It spent six weeks on the Billboard R&B chart where it peaked at number seven. Two years earlier, Waters recorded another hit for producer Leonard Chess in ‘Hoochie Coochie Man.’ The song reached number eight on Billboard’s Black Singles chart and, in addition to being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984, it was voted number two-twenty-seven on Rolling Stone’s list of the five hundred greatest songs of all time.
    “Let’s take another call. Midnight Blues. You got Mamie.”
    The line was silent.
    “Don’t be shy, sweetie. What’s on your mind?” A crash of thunder rumbled overhead. Mamie could feel the summer rain begin to pound the studio from above. She reached for the call dump button.
    “Last chance,” she said in a tone that was anything but threatening.
    “This show means a lot to me,” said a thin and crackling voice.
    “Thank you, sweetie. Means a lot to me, too. What can play for you as the Saturday night storm rolls in?”
    “I’ve got a request.”
    “That’s what we do, sweetie. Lay it on me.”
    “I want you to play,” the voice paused as if to treat the next words like they were the musical equal to the bridge leading to the guitar solo, “I want you to play ‘Let Me Hold You’ by Audrey Jackson.”
     A crash of thunder shook the room like an ominous cliche in a forgotten film noir. Mamie held her silence.  
    One year ago to the day, she closed her show with this little-known tune from a diva who, along with her lover and co-songwriter, had passed before their time. Miles from the WMLN studio that same night, two more young souls were leaving this world before their time. Jerome and Darren’s tickets were been punched sometime while “Let Me Hold You” played across the local airwaves. Out of respect for her departed family, Mamie had made the promise to never play this song again—to never mention it again, much less listen to it.
     “I’ve retired that song from the show, sweetie. Personal reasons. But maybe a little Billie Holiday will tame what ails ya.”
    “I understand your aversion,” the voice was steady despite its lo-fi timbre, “but ‘Let Me Hold You’ is a very important song for me, you see. It was the last song my wife and I listened to before she left me.”
    Mamie was silent.
    “And I’d like very much for you to find it in your heart to play it because I want it to be the last song I hear before I die.”    Dump the call.
    Every instinct Mamie had told her to dump the call and hit the delay button. If you do it now, you can cover over the caller’s statement. It may be a jarring cut for the audience, but she could always claim the storm had caused a bit of technical difficulty.
    Mamie kept the call live and waited for the man to explain himself. When he didn’t, she prodded his enigmatic request.
    “I’m not sure I follow, mister. Are you sick?”
    “Of the body, no. Of the heart, I’m afraid so.”
    Mamie considered his response, then prodded further.
    “I’m still not sure I-“
    “I’m going to kill myself. Tonight. I’m going to end my life, and I’d like to do it after listening to ‘Let Me Hold You’ by Audrey Jackson.”
    Mamie pushed the delay and hold buttons simultaneously. The call was off the air and waiting to resume. Mamie prayed she had hit the delay button in time to spare the listening audience of the caller’s plans, assuming she heard them right.   
    The caller’s voice hadn’t wavered when he revealed his intention and Mamie couldn’t discern whether his threat was genuine and his intentions authentic. She looked around the studio and was suddenly unnerved that she was alone.

© 2019 Fred Smith

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