Walker Smith

The Color Line

"I dare you to walk away from this book uninspired. Readers of all races will learn volumes from this far-reaching new book for our times"

- Hycell B. Taylor, The African-American Revolt of the Spirit

Bluestone Rondo

Chicago – 1952
What a difference a day made…
It was just a song on the radio. At least that’s what Joe told himself. An unfeeling bit of musical electricity delivered by airwaves, like a million other songs on a million other radios. But he didn’t really believe it. That song had hunted him down as surely as McCarthy hunted down Reds on the Black List. 
The tall windows let in just enough light to illuminate half the room. Joe was sitting on the dark side of the bed smoking a cigarette and staring at the radio’s eerie glowing dial.

What a difference a day made…

Twenty-four hours ago, success was only a ten-minute drive up North Fairbanks Avenue at the Chez Paree. Joe had been scheduled to appear there as the headliner for a sold-out weekend engagement. On his way from the airport to the hotel, his limousine had passed the nightclub and he had seen his name in lights on a marquee for the first time.  But just one day later, everything he had worked for, lied for, and sold his soul for was gone. So here he was—high above the city lights in a glamorous joint called The Palmer House—trapped in a room with his worst enemy, that radio, and his best friend, a .38-caliber revolver. If he wasn’t so hungover and miserable, he might have laughed at the irony.

His gaze drifted over to a slanted rectangle of light near the window. Scattered there on the floor were several message slips and the Entertainment section of the Tribune, which was soaked and littered with jagged pieces of a broken glass. All night he had been trying to deaden the pain and quiet the voices on the radio with a mix of scotch and Benzedrine. But he had finished off the scotch, and the Bennies weren’t working anymore. All he had left was his trusty .38. He had never actually shot anyone with it, but it did have a way of making a point in an argument.

Joe peered curiously at the gun as he loaded it. The smug little sonofabitch seemed to be gulping the bullets, eager to get to its big moment. “I only need one, ya know,” he muttered.

In the distance, he heard a fuzzy, percussive sound. As it grew louder, he realized that it was someone knocking on his door. How long had it been going on? He shook his head. “No. That’s not real. Nobody’s there.” Pointing at the radio, he yelled: “And you’re not real either!”

As if on cue, the radio contradicted him in one of its many voices:

… Be sure to stay tuned for a full hour of romantic hits after this brief news break … In an interview today, Roy Cohn, counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, denied that U.N. Assistant Secretary General Abe Feller’s recent suicide was a result of Blacklist-related harassment. “I can only repeat the Senator’s earlier statement,” Cohn said. “If Feller’s conscience was clear, he had nothing to fear from us.”

… And now a word from our sponsor, pure, clean Ivory soap…

Joe squeezed his eyes shut as the words from the news and the advertisement jumbled together in his brain:

McCarthyBlacklistSuicideClearconsciencePurecleanIvorysoap…

He raised the gun to his head, but before he could position his finger on the trigger, a sound on the radio stopped him cold:  Violins.

An orchestra was playing the intro to a familiar song. And in some hazy echo chamber of his mind, he could hear Magda, in her broken English, telling him her “great secret.”

I let da tears flow out through fingertips into da bow. You see, Joe? I make da violin to cry.

The gun slipped harmlessly from his hand onto the bed as the song washed over him, drowning him in sorrow. The violin soloist played a short, plaintive interlude, conjuring up an image of Magda that was so real and so close—Joe could almost feel her heartbeat.

Then the last kick of his scotch/Benny high slurred the rest of the song into an incoherent mess, which struck him as funnyuntil the announcer slapped him back to reality:

That’s one of the best torch songs ever put on wax, ladies and gentlemen— I’m a Fool to Want You—nicely done by the one and only Frank Sinatra.

Joe’s lips twitched into a feeble smile. “The one and only.”

He watched his hand picking up the gun seemingly with a will of its own. The cold kiss of gunmetal on his temple caused him to flinch slightly. The phantom door knocking grew louder.

“You’re not really here!” He shut his eyes again, trying desperately to conjure up Magda’s face. But all he could see was the brother he had been running from all his life. He opened his eyes. “You’re not really here, Calvin! Leave me alone! Please leave me alone!”

I’m here, Joe. And I ain’t goin’ noplace… I ain’t goin’ noplace… I ain’t goin’ noplace…

Joe curled his finger around the trigger. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “I’m dead already anyway.”

 

– Walker Smith

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