A JOURNAL ENTRY
R. HARLAN SMITH
Steve and his business partner Dave, a jazz singer, invited me along for the ride on a drive down to Purdue to visit another jazz musician, Hans Bessel. Hans taught classes there. He was a vibes man and very good. He was better known by other musicians and jazz afficianados than he was by the big labels in jazz. He had played with all of them; Gillespie, The Messengers, Brubeck, you name it, he played with them. Hans had some arrangements from the American Songbook for Dave, and we took off on a frigid, gray Saturday morning in Dave’s cluttered, old Pontiac.
The fields and forests of Indiana in winter give me the feeling everything on earth is dead, except humanity, which hardly seems fair, but is none the less frozen into truth on the brittle horizon. What could be more dreary than a road trip on such a day? Hans Bessel’s house.
We followed Dave’s crude map to the address he had written on a soup can label, and there was a problem of threes and fives with the address. With his scribbling, there was no telling which was which, and the name of the street was entirely unintelligible. Dave and Steve argued in a place called The Coffee Stop.
“Who taught you to write, Helen Keller? You raised by a fuckin’ crocodile, or somethin’?”
“I had nothin’ to write on, and he was in a hurry, alright? I wrote what it sounded like he said, alright? So fuck off, already.”
The waitress brought our coffee and waddled away.
“Lookit that. What is that, Grfleminin? That ain’t even a street, for Christ sake. There’s no Grfleminin.”
“It’s Garfield Street.”
“Oh, Jesus, throw me a rope.”
I left the booth and headed for the phone on the wall by the washrooms. The phone book listed Hans Bessel at 3558 Garfield. It would be at the end of the block on the right. I wrote it on a page from my notebook and brought it back to Dave. “He’s in the book.”
Steve wanted to know what Bessel’s wife was like.
“How should I know, man? I never met her.”
“Didn’t you say she was an artist, or something?”
“Yeah, but I never met her.”
The Bessel house was a two-story, wood-frame monstrosity, built for the upper class in turn-of-the-century Indiana. It was typical of the houses in that area, probably for one of the professors. It had weathered a century of rain and snow and humidity, and it sat shrugged on its foundation like a fat, slate-roofed toad. We had to take our shoes off at the front door.
Hans welcomed us quickly inside to keep the weather out as he explained the furnace was out and would be replaced next week. They, he and Paula, were living in their cluttered, cubby hole kitchen with electric heaters and the smells of coffee and chicken soup and tobacco smoke. There was barely space enough for all five of us, but Hans managed to fit an extra chair from the back porch for me, and we sat around the table and got acquainted amidst the mess of sheet music and books on music theory.
What peaked my interest was the interior of the house. The rooms had been refurbished with reworked walls and fresh paint; white walls and sky-blue ceilings. The garnishment around the doors and windows, which had been enlarged and replaced, was fresh and unfinished, and the floors had been sanded and varnished and polished to a museum gloss. The room to the right of the entrance had the statue of an exact replica of Paula seated on a wooden stool in the nude with a pleasant smile on her face. The room to the left had another in a different pose and a more mischievous smile. There was no other furniture. They were very well done and very revealing of Paula. Steve and Dave hadn’t seemed to notice. They began talking music right away and who had a gig where and what was the scene in Old Town, Chicago and have you heard Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk”? Crazy, man.
I asked Paula about the statues. “The house looks great,” I said, “and I love the figures. Did someone local do them?”
“I did them. The rooms upstairs have two more. I’m going to cover all the walls with paintings by my friends.”
“Really. They’re very good.”
Her smile was genuine, and when she turned her attention on me, I was genuinely excited. “Thank you. Yours is the first compliment I’ve heard. Are you an artist?”
“Yes. I’m a painter. Oils.”
“What do you paint? I hope you’re not the Jackson Pollock type.”
“I do landscapes.”
“Not the dreary Hudson River stuff, I hope.”
She made me laugh. “No. I’m more of an Impressionist. I like sunlight.”
“Ah, I like that. A lot of my friends are Impressionists, I’d love to see some of your work.”
Suddenly, the time had passed and we were leaving. We said our good bys and were on the road back to Glen Park. I waved to Paula and she smiled and waved back with what I thought was some enthusiasm. Neither Dave or Steve were speaking until Dave said, “The son of a bitch didn’t even have’m ready. We drove all that way for nothing.”
“Well, he said Paula kept him busy on the house. He apologized.”
“Yeah, well, he said he’d have’m ready.”
“Turn on the heater, for Christ sake. I’m freezin’ over here.”
“It is on.”
Dave thumped the dashboard. The glove compartment fell open and the heater fan whirred. He looked at me through the rear view mirror. “I can’t believe you made a move on Bessel’s wife, man.”
I didn’t answer. He can think what he wants.
I wondered if I’d ever meet a woman like Paula some day. Maybe I’ll put a wooden stool up in my apartment and imagine her there.
A JOURNAL ENTRY