I knew, the first time he came into Joe’s, that he had the blues eye. Lots of folk playing the blues, lots of sad guitars and smoke-scoured voices, but not many of ‘em have what makes it true.
Mama Connolly, now, she had it. Nobody knew her name nor kin, nor even if she was really anybody’s mama, but she would sit down at the plinky old piano in the back room of Joe Perry’s place in Harrisville and sing, screw up her face into a thousand wrinkles and let loose with a voice like a broken angel, till it almost seemed you could see it curling deep blue and heavy through the smoke. And when she finished up the boozers would sit quiet, and she’d open her old eyes, tear-tracks shining, and you’d know that pain in her voice wasn’t something she learned, it was some part of her that she’d torn free and thrown out into the air. I always felt half-ashamed, after I listened to Mama Connolly, like I was hearing something that wasn’t my business, like the neighbors in 4B screaming and fighting, and then moaning, later, and screaming a different way, the dull thuds of their bedposts shaking the wall behind my head, late, when Daddy hadn’t come home yet and Mama didn’t want us to know she was crying in the kitchen.
Mama Connolly, she had the blues eye, but I never knew it till she was long dead, buried in the little churchyard next to Church of the Risen Glory with rosemary planted over her.
Rosemary was for remembering, she told me once, and cut me off a sprig from the pot in her flyspecked window.
When I was older, when I was nineteen and knew everything there was to know, I thought of Mama Connolly sometimes, when the sounds of the jungle at night began to sound like the summer cicadas in Harrisville. There was a man in my platoon, the Major. He was the second person I ever knew who had the blues eye. It was harmonica that he played, when we were far enough from enemy lines that he could risk the noise, and when he played that harmonica’s voice spoke of living and hurting, of missing and aching, of coming home to a place that didn’t want you no more. I heard my Mama in the music there, those nights, and Billy Walters heard his sweetheart who was nursing in Tokyo, and Sparks heard his new baby boy back in Wisconsin, and his little girl whose creased, water-spotted picture he carried in his breast pocket every living hour of the day and took out to look at when things got quiet. The Major never talked much, just enough to give orders or take 'em, but those nights he said plenty.
I got my first guitar while I was in the VA in San Francisco, getting fitted for the glass eye and finishing the skin grafts. There was an old Salvation Army man who came around the wards on Tuesdays and Fridays, who played a battered mandolin and sang spirituals in his reedy old-man voice. The blues didn’t burn in his face, but his eyes were always kind, and he saw a lot through his smeared half glasses. He showed up one day with a beat-up guitar and a hymnbook, and sat down right by where I was sitting in my wheelchair, looking out the window at the drizzling rain outside, seeing balls of fire every time I shut my eyes. I don’t know how he did it, but before I quite knew what was what he’d curled my stiff fingers around the neck and was teaching me how to chord C.
When I left, right side all patchy with tight new tender skin, I went to the Greyhound station and bought a ticket back to Harrisville. Had my army duffle, fifty dollars, and the guitar I got from the Salvation Army man, in a case tied shut with string.
Got a job at the train yards, there, that paid pretty good; I was stiff but I could still unload freight. Sometimes at night I’d take my guitar and go back to Joe Perry’s place, pester the musicians to let me play with them. They usually let me. Sometimes, one of 'em would have the blues eye, and then I’d be there every night, trying to learn it, smoking cigarette after cigarette, playing my fingers raw and singing till I only just had to time to go home and change before leaving for the train yards again. Those were good years, mostly. I met Rosie, married her; bought a little house near the train yard, where we raised us a family. After a while we slept right through the noises of the trains. The time went fast.
When I started stiffening up again, a few years ago, and they let me go from the train yard. I still have my pension, though, and the girls are all grown up and married now with babies of their own. I still play at Joe’s on Wednesdays and Fridays, letting the strings and the songs come up out of the place that wants to remember the times I don’t talk about, not even with Rosie.
He came in the first time on a Wednesday in October. I recognized him, of course. I imagine pretty much everyone did, but no one said nothing to him. You don’t come to Joe’s to be nobody’s company but your own. He sat in a corner, back in the shadows, nursing one beer all night. When I looked over at him, during the last set, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He was too new and bright to have the blues eye, too clean, his hair wrong, his clothes funny. But he had it, all the same, he’d gone away into the place the music goes.
I wondered who lived in that place, for him.
I thought about telling my granddaughter Carrie that he’d been there, the next day, since she had his picture hanging all over her bedroom walls, but I remembered the look on his face- the Major’s look, Mama Connolly’s look- and I knew it wasn’t my place to say.
He came back the next week. And that weekend. And on Wednesday, again, and soon he was one of Joe’s regulars, Mary would save his little table by the corner of the stage and have his beer for him two minutes after he sat down. She started callin' him "Kitten" in that graveled voice of hers, for some reason she never saw fit to explain, but no one at Joe's ever said nothin' about it. Hell, Mary'd been callin' Big Bill Montgomery “Squeaker” for the last fifteen years. Nobody argued with Mary; it wasn’t worth the time. And to be given a nickname by Mary was a pass, of sorts. It meant you had a place.
Every time he came, I’d look over in the middle of the set and see the blues eye, so startling on that baby-smooth face. Everyone else I’d ever met who had it had been lined and seamed and worn by life; I’d never thought that maybe it could be something inborn in a man, too.
I started listening when Carrie chattered about him. I even watched a show with her on the TV. I’d thought the clothes he wore to Joe’s were strange, but apparently he’d actually been making an effort to blend in, because he was wearing some damn-fool thing with glitter on it. Pink, with large brown splotches. I thought maybe it was my eye giving me trouble, but Carrie rolled her eyes and said, “No, Grandaddy, that’s the way rock stars dress,” so I guess it was on purpose. They did a song, something too loud and too technological, and jumped around the stage like fools, but when the camera zoomed in on Kitten I could see him doing it again, losing himself in the music place, his whole body swaying with it, and I saw the Major hunched over his harmonica like each breath was paining him, and Mama Connolly rocking with each chord she hit like it was a blow to her soul.
“He likes Billie Holliday,” Carrie told me. “I read that in Bop.”
The next week, I did “God Bless The Child,” even though it’s really not my kind of thing. He startled, and looked straight into my good eye, and I knew he knew when he smiled, open and sweet like my grandbaby Michael, when we’ve been keeping him for a while and his Mama finally come home. I nodded to him, smiling back. He sang along, real quiet like, so that only Mary and I could hear, his voice floating pure on top of the music.
I tried to work Billie in more, after that, and Kitten always got that same look, and usually sang. It’s stupid, but I was proud of that. Not because he could buy and sell me a hundred times over, or because my granddaughter had his face smiling over her at night, but because he had the blues eye, and I could make him sing.
It was sometime in December, and I was just finishing up a set, when there was a stir of whispers at the door. Another new face, more outlandish clothes, strange scarlet streaks in his hair and jewelry. The regulars by the bar muttered, but people leave each other alone at Joe’s, and he wasn’t bothered as he crossed the floor to where Kitten was sitting, watching the newcomer over his half-drunk beer.
I recognized him from what Carrie had shown me, one of the others in that group with Kitten, a strange little man with bold eyes and a startlingly high voice. I couldn’t remember his name; he looked like a street punk off the TV, only short. I took my beer from Mary and set my guitar down, trying to hear what they were talking about at the little table by my left side.
“You found my place,” said Kitten.
“I’ve been looking for a while.” His words were light, but his tone wasn’t.
“You—” Kitten looked down, fiddled with his coaster, then drained his beer in one long draught. “You could stay. If you wanted.”
Punk smiled. “I want to stay,” he said, and sat down next to Kitten, in the shadows. He shrugged out of the black leather jacket he’d been wearing, and asked Mary to bring him a beer.
I set down my glass and picked up my guitar again, and strummed the opening chords of “God Bless the Child.” Kitten smiled; Punk did too. I heard him ask, “what, he takes requests?” in the measure before I started to sing.
By the first chorus Kitten was singing, as usual, swaying deep in the music and crooning it soft and slow. Punk looked at him, and though he was hidden in the shadow I could see that he, too, knew about the blues eye. He joined in, his voice soaring above mine, above Kitten’s, dancing with my guitar strings.
Kitten looked at me, blues eye bright, and I thought I knew who it was that lived for him in the place the music goes.