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Fat Man Blues
A 'taster' for a blues novel by Richard Wall


     Red’s was a juke-joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, just across the tracks from the Ground Zero Blues Club. On the third night that I went in, the place was empty; except for Red, who was engrossed in a newspaper, and an obese black man I’d never seen before who was scribbling in a notebook at a table next to the stage, necking Tanqueray from the bottle and in a world that only he could see.

     I walked up to the bar. Red looked up, nodded at me, produced a bottle of Sam Adams and then carried on reading.

     “I’m a King Bee” by Slim Harpo was playing on the juke-box; I placed a five-dollar bill on the bar and sipped my beer to the hypnotic swamp-blues vibe.

     Slim Harpo stopped singing and the juke-box fell silent. The fat man lifted his massive head and blinked at me slowly.

     “Y’all dig the blues, White Boy?” he said.

     I said that I did.

     The fat man grunted. “I ‘member one time, Muddy Waters stopped by here, stood ‘sac’ly where you standin’ now. Man that cat could play.”

      He gave three hefty chuckles, took another drink and then belched. “What are y’all doin’ here?”

     I told him I was following the blues trail and was stopping in Clarksdale for a few nights.

     “Jus’ another white boy wants t’ play the blues, huh?”

     I shrugged.

     “Where’s yo’ accent from?”

     I told him it was from England.

     “Well,” he said. “This heyah’s what the blues is now. Blues is fo’ white folks, but it ain’t the real blues. I knows where the real blues is, ain’t that right, Red?”

     Red didn't look up but his head moved slightly. It could have been a nod.

     “Come over heyah, son,” said the fat man.

     I walked over.

     Up close he reeked of booze and body odour; beads of sweat covered his bald head, and the black t-shirt stretched across his huge bulk and black sweat pants that encased massive thighs were covered in stains that I didn’t want to think about. He cleared his throat and blinked slowly as he fought to salvage discarded words from his gin-soaked vocabulary.

     “See,” he said. “They’s a place where the blues is still like it was.” He leaned closer. “I can show yo’ that place, if yo’ of a mind?”

     I said maybe and asked him his name.

     The fat man blinked at me, his eyes glazing as he processed this, and then said, “I’ll get back to yo’ on that.”

     He stood up, wavered unsteadily and then left the bar through a door at the back of the room.

     I returned to the bar and asked Red who that was. He didn’t look up from his newspaper.

     “Tha's Fat Man,” he growled. “An’ tha’s all I’m sayin’.”

      True to his word, Red remained silent. I stayed for another beer and then said goodnight.

     Fat Man appeared from an alley at the side of the building.

     “So, yo’ wan’ see this place where the blues is at?”

     I wondered what sort of scam was about to be played. Maybe he was a hustler for another club?

     “Ain’t no scam,” he said. “An’ I ain’t no hustler. This place I knows, it ain’t no club, but is jus’ the sort o’ place yo’ need to see. Blues is wid y’all.”

     I asked him what he meant.

     “I saw yo’ diggin’ Slim Harpo,” he said. “Yo’ heyah cos’ yo’ woman gone an’ yo’ feelin’ low down. Yo’ got the sickness. Yo’ got the blues sho’ nuff.”

     I asked him how the hell he knew all that.

     “Yo’ wearin’ a weddin’ band but yo’ been heyah three nights on yo’ own, hittin’ the booze an’ diggin’ the blues. Yo’ got a dark aura, kinda sickly. Somethin’ bad be hangin’ wid yo’.”

     I said I had to go. Fat Man stepped in front of me. “Hear me, White Boy," he said. "I knows a place yo’ would ‘preciate. I’m talkin’ Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Willie Brown.”

     Now I was certain he was drunk. I reminded him that they were all dead.

     He winked. “Maybe they is, maybe they ain’t.  Maybe yo’ ain't far behind ‘em. An’ I ain’t drunk, I jus’ been drinkin’. We gon’ talk again soon.”

I stepped around him and walked back into town.

Holly Ridge

     Several drinks later I was sitting on the bed in the apartment I’d rented above the Ground Zero Blues Club, staring at my phone as it swam in and out of focus. I dialled her number and for a long time my thumb hovered over the green icon, then the realisation kicked in and I pressed cancel. Rose was gone.

     I replayed the conversation with Fat Man. I was intrigued about what he meant by the real blues. Clearly he was off his head on God only knew what, but would I take him up on his offer?

     The jury was still out.

     I woke up twice with raging night sweats that I put down to the amount I’d drunk - you can fool all of the people some of the time. I was on a countdown and the next morning I was fifty years and five days old.

     I took my hangover to breakfast - it was the least I could do - but it took several refills of coffee to persuade it to leave.

     I wandered out into the bright morning sunshine and explored the streets of Clarksdale.

     Some time later I found myself standing next to my car in the parking lot of Ground Zero. A cloud passed over the sun and I shivered at the sudden drop in temperature. I got into the car and drove out of town.

     Highway 61 was quiet as I headed south, the sun glinting off pools of water that littered the rich, fertile, dark grey soil, serving as a reminder that the delta is nothing more than a playground for the sleeping giant that is the Mississippi River.

     As the flat landscape of endless cotton fields flowed beneath the sapphire Mississippi sky, I felt enveloped in a calmness that had been missing for a long time.

     Twenty-five miles south of Clarksdale, give or take, is a town called Leland. Here I headed east for five miles on Highway 82 and then turned north.

     Holly Ridge is a quarter of a mile stretch of about a dozen houses, a cotton gin, a derelict wooden church and an acre of dilapidated graveyard. It was deserted when I stopped and got out of the car.

     This was my second visit and I knew where to go.

     I walked fifty feet from the road to a plot at the edge of the graveyard and stood for a long time reading and re-reading the inscription on the grey headstone:

Charley Patton

April 1891 - April 28 1934

The voice of the Delta

The foremost performer of early

Mississippi blues whose songs became

cornerstones of American music

     Scattered around the grave were coins of many nations, guitar picks and plastic flowers. Mementoes left by visitors in deference to a mixed race singer who stood five foot five inches tall, weighed a hundred and fifty-five pounds and yet whose voice could be heard five-hundred yards away.

     By all accounts, Mister Patton liked to party hard and next to the head stone someone had left a large glass bottle, half-filled with a dark brown liquid that the sun-bleached label proclaimed to be Bulleit Bourbon.

     It didn’t seem out of place.

     “Oh, he liked to party hard, sho’ nuff.”

     I was lost in reverie and physically startled at Fat Man’s voice. He walked from behind me to stand next to the headstone.

     I looked around. Mine was the only car I could see.

     I asked him where the hell he’d come from. Instead of answering he stooped, picked up the bottle, unscrewed the cap and took a large swig, spilling bourbon down his t-shirt and adding to the stains I’d seen the night before. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he grinned and offered the bottle to me.

     I shook my head and asked him if he was following me.

     Instead of answering he took several long pulls from the bottle, his throat working noisily as he guzzled the dark liquor.

     I turned away from the sound and stared towards the old church. According to a book I’d read, Charley Patton used to preach there.

     Fat Man belched. “Some say he knew he’s took bad, knew his time was short, started to repent all his high livin’. Tha’s why he took up preachin’, coverin’ all ‘ventualities, you might say.”

     By my reckoning, Fat Man had been chugging bourbon for the best part of a minute or so. His eyes took on the liquid shine of a wet brain and booze dripped from his chin. In one movement he replaced the cap and returned the bottle next to the stone.

     It took me a few seconds to realise that the level of bourbon hadn’t dropped an inch from when I first arrived.

     Fat Man chuckled. “I always was whatchoo might call a glass half-full kinda guy.”

     I looked around, tried to hide my nervousness.

     “No need to be scared, White Boy,” he said. “Time enough fo’ that later.”

     I asked him who he was, where he’d come from and what he wanted with me.

     “Who I am, where I’m from, they jus’ incidentals,” he said. “Don’ mean nothin’ in the grand scheme o’ things. What I want witchoo? Well now, tha's an interesting question.”

     He leaned his vast bulk against Charley Patton’s headstone and then caught the look on my face. “Ain’t no sacrilege," he said. "Ain’t nothin’ but a stone with a bit o’ writin’.” He cupped his ear and inclined his head towards the ground. “An’ I don’ heyah no complainin’.”

     Fat Man grinned and then reached into his pocket, pulling out a packet of Lucky Strikes and a book of matches. He lit a cigarette, drew deeply on it and blew out a cloud of blue smoke.

     “Well now,” he said. “Heyah, we all is.”

     He took another drag. “I’m heyah cos I think yo’ not gettin’ the full benefit of what a feller like me can offer the discernin’ blues tourist.”

     I said that I had no idea what he was talking about.

     He smoked at me for a while, took a final drag of the Lucky Strike, ground the butt into the dirt with his shoe then looked up.

     "Yo’ plays the gittar back home.”

     It was a statement, not a question. I asked him how he knew so much about me.

     “Don’ matter ‘how’, jus’ is. Yo’ play the gittar fo’ yo’ self, but deep down, in yo’ quiet time, yo’ dreams of playin’ slide gittar in a bar, an’ havin’ all the wimmins shoutin’ an’ hollerin’ fo’ mo’ of yo’ playin’.”

     I said nothing.

     “Ain’ nothin’ to be ‘shamed of. Ever’ man deserves a little vanity now an’ then.”

     He lit another cigarette.

     “An’ sometime’s yo’ dream yo’ playin’ yo’ gittar with Charley Patton, Son House or Willie Brown.”

     I could feel myself blushing.

     “Ain’ nothin’ wrong with that neither. Imagination’s a powerful force. Can be what drives a man. In his mind, a man can do most anythin’; make his self richer than a king, get his self a beautiful woman, drive his self a fancy car, play the gittar in a Delta juke-joint. Make hell outta heaven an' heaven outta hell. Yessuh, inside the mind of a man can be a wondrous place.”

     He paused. “A lost paradise, yo’ might say.”

     Chuckling to himself, he blew out more smoke.

     “But in yo’ mind, hearin’ the blues and playin’ the blues is all the riches yo’ strive fo’. Like a itch yo’ jus’ cain’t reach but needs t’scratch real bad. Blues is all yo’ thinkin’ of right about now. Yo’ think blues has got the answer an’ tha’s the solid truth.”

     He stopped and I had nothing to say.

      “An' then,” he said. “Yo' come all the way from England to drive roun’ Mississippi takin’ pitchers o’ buildin's an’ statues an’ graveyards. Yo’ goes into places where they puts a jukebox filled with blues records and calls themselves juke-joints. Ever’one’s friendly, aks yo' where yo’ from an’ ‘I love yo’ acceyent’ then yo’ go home an’ tell ever’one that yo’ seen the blues. That about right?”

     I was about to answer when he aimed his Lucky Strike at me.

     “But what yo’ really wants to see is the real deal. Yo’ a purist, yo’ wanna see it like it was back in the day; black man stompin’ out the blues on a ol’ Stella gittar, folks like Charley Patton raisin’ hell in a real juke-joint or shotgun shack, drinkin’ rotgut  whisky, chasing wimmin an’ havin’ a high ol’ time cos they got no desire to work on no cotton plantation.”

     Fat Man looked me straight in the eye. “What if I said I can show y’all that? Take yo’ back to those times?”

     I asked how that was possible.

     “Tha's jus’ detail,” he said, and then flashed a grin. “An’ we all knows who lives in theyah.”

     He drew deeply on the cigarette and wreathed his face in smoke as he exhaled. “This ain' no bullshit,” he said. “I can do all o' that."

     When I asked him what I had to do he waved a dismissive hand. “Thas’ jus’ mo’ detail," he said. "It ain’ gon’ cost yo’ dollar one, jus’ a little bit o’ yo’ time, of no consequence.”

     He paused. “In the grand scheme o’ things.”

     Fat Man smiled, and it was almost friendly.

     "I talked enough fo’ today," he said. "Nex’ time we meets we can discuss this matter further.”

     Right then I had no intention of seeing Fat Man again. I just wanted to get away.

     “It ain’t my intention to make yo’ feel uncomfortable,” he said. “But time waits fo’ no man an’ yo’ time gettin’ impatient, but I’ll move on now an’ bid yo’ good day.”

     He stood up and walked past me. For a few seconds I stared at Charley Patton’s headstone then turned to walk back to the car.

     Fat Man was nowhere to be seen.

     As I drove, I tried to make sense of our conversation. By the time I reached Clarksdale, I was none the wiser.


Essay (this page) © Copyright 2015 Richard Wall. All rights reserved.

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