This week we serve up something special at The Jade Sphinx, three short stories never before published for your summer enjoyment. Up first is You’re Nowhere if You’re Not With Me, by Ron Werthermer. Ron Wertheimer, author of the novels Back Then and The Rutherford B. Hayes Show and a longtime newspaperman, retired in December after 26 years as an editor for The New York Times. We could think of no better way to start this series – you are in for a treat.
The man of my dreams was drafted,
And shipped away like that.
Now each night I write a letter
To the gent in the striped top hat:
You called the guy I care for,
He said he had to scram.
It’s sadness I’ll prepare for,
Till they cry uncle, Uncle Sam.
That boy is quite an eyeful,
Now teary-eyed I am.
He’s got to tote that rifle,
Till they cry uncle, Uncle Sam.
I know he has to bear arms,
His duty he must do.
Return him to my fair arms.
I’m counting, Sam, on you.
When all the fighting’s over,
I’ll get my sweetie lamb.
And we’ll all be in clover,
When they cry uncle, Uncle Sam.
I bet you never heard that song, Charlie. I got it from the Internet — downloaded it, like you showed me. See? Your old grandpa may get to be a computer whiz yet.
It’s amazing to me — all those great old songs, still alive, floating out there in space.
O.K. Laugh if you want. That’s how it seems to me.
So what do you think of it? Pretty catchy, huh? Oh, I know it sounds corny now.
Even I can hear that. But back in 1944 — that’s the year I turned 18 — people went for this kind of thing. It was wartime, of course. That song was on the Hit Parade for seven weeks. Made it as high as No. 3. It was one of the biggest records for the band, Tootles Flume and His Barefoot Wanderers. No, really.
Tootles Flume himself played the trombone. He was a tree trunk of a man — must’ve been 6 foot 3. His group didn’t take itself as seriously as some of the other top bands. They were known for novelty numbers like “The Rooster’s Revenge” and “Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Omaha.” But that outfit could really play. Some of those guys are still revered among jazz and swing fans. Even Tootles. He got some awfully sweet sounds out of that horn.
But his big draw during the war was the girl singer, Annie Swanson. That’s her singing there. You’ve heard of her, right? Later, she was in some movies, and she was on TV for years and years. She’s dead now.
You could hear her winking right through the record grooves. But if you could actually see her, that was much better. She was this adorable little blonde, with a smile you could get lost in. I know.
Wait. I’ll show you. I have it here somewhere. Oh, over there. That leather photo album on the bookcase. Get it for me?
Here, see? Pretty cute, right? Some figure. And look, she’s singing a duet with this very handsome young fella. You recognize him? Look again.
That’s me, Charlie, honest, at the height of my professional singing career, which lasted all of four months.
How is it I never told you about my big band days? I bored your mom and your Uncle Jim with some of my tales when they were kids. But Grandma didn’t like it when I talked too much about those days. She wanted to think that my life really began when I met her. Or when I noticed that George Hasbrouck’s little sister was all grown up, and I asked her for a date.
But that came later. A lot of stuff came later. In ’44, I was a senior in high school, working at the family clothing store here in town and singing with a trio — the Harmonaires we called ourselves. We could do all the big hits. Sang at school dances and church socials and such.
Not exactly the big time. But we weren’t too bad. We could carry a tune. And when we did some of the romantic ballads, like “Gretchen” — you ever hear that one? “There’s no girl as fetchin’ as my Gretchen.” Really. That was a big hit, too.
Anyway, when we sang those tunes, the girls would really go for it.
We had no illusions that our singing would ever take us beyond this town. But we were pretty sure what would take us away. The war. We knew that when our birthdays hit — mine was coming that September — well, like the song said, we’d be “shipped away like that.”
Still, we were determined to enjoy the time we had. And we did. Me, I was quite the ladies’ man. Hard to believe, right?
The draft had taken quite a few of the young guys, of course. So there were some pretty fetchin’ Gretchens around here who wouldn’t mind spending some time with a strapping kid like me. And the fact that, with the store and all, my family had the last dwindling supply of sheer stockings in these parts, I had a pretty full — uh — social calendar.
Now, don’t repeat any of this to your mother, Charlie. But you’re a sophisticated college man now, and this is just between us guys, O.K.? I sure never told these stories when your Grandma was alive.
Anyway, some of those lonely young wives, and maybe a couple who weren’t quite so young, they’d stop by the store, buy a couple of things, then ask if Pop could have the package sent around to their houses later. “Maybe, if Billy isn’t too busy after school,” they’d say.
I was never too busy. This one lady, a redhead, was a real good customer. I’d bring her a dress or something, and she’d ask me to wait while she tried it on. “Just sit right here,” she’d say. “I won’t be a minute. Just in case it doesn’t fit, you can take it back. Save me a trip.”
The chair she offered me in the living room had a clear view of the hallway that led back to her bedroom door, which she’d somehow forget to close. I pretended not to look. She pretended not to watch me look. And by the time she called, “Oh, Billy, maybe you could help me with this zipper,” well, we were on the same wavelength.
We must’ve played that game three or four different times. We always acted as if nothing like that had ever happened before. And like some of the others, she seemed to be happy with the notion that she was teaching me something. Sometimes, she was.
At dinner time, when Mama was in the kitchen, Pop would give me a wink and say, “I hope you got a good tip for that delivery.” We never discussed the matter further. He was O.K., my Pop. You’d have liked him, Charlie.
It didn’t occur to me to ask him if he’d have been so winky if some smug-faced boy was catting after his wife or daughter. It didn’t occur to me then, when my hormones were calling the shots. I did think about it, though, years later, when I was a husband and father and running that store. I kept your Uncle Jim on a short leash. No deliveries.
# # #
I’d been so busy with my duties that I missed the item in the paper about Tootles Flume and His Barefoot Wanderers coming here to play two nights out at the Lakeside Pavilion. But George read about it — my future brother-in-law. Boy, we sure would’ve laughed our asses off at that idea. He was in the trio with me and Pete O’Malley.
George ran over to the store. He said, “You’re not gonna believe this, Billy, but the Tootles Flume band is down by the lake, setting up for a show tonight. I saw them get off the bus and go in. I saw Flume himself, and Annie Swanson.”
Well, this was big news. The thought that we could see them in the flesh was exciting. But George, well, he had something even more exciting in mind.
“Why don’t you go over there, Billy, and see if they want to hire the Harmonaires for the band?”
“Are you crazy?” he said. “What would a top group like that want with three high school boys from nowhere?”
“They don’t have a vocal group. And you know their boy singer’s in the Navy.”
I did know that. Since we fancied that we were in show business ourselves, we kept tabs on the band news in the papers and magazines. We knew that Mike Fontaine was in the service, along with several other Wanderers. The band still had a solid roster — older guys and a couple that the War Department didn’t want. One of the saxophone players, Slim Judson, did a little singing. And, of course, the people all wanted to see Annie. Still, maybe adding a nice-looking trio wasn’t so crazy after all.
“Why don’t you go talk to them yourself?” I asked. But George said I was the one to do it.
“You look the oldest,” he said. “And you can use that smooth patter of yours to talk us into a job.”
And that’s why I went sneaking into the Pavilion that afternoon and found myself gazing up at the stage, where some of the band members were milling around, instruments in hand. Flume, holding a bottle of pop, which looked like an eye dropper in his paw, was having what looked like a serious talk with a little man at the piano. That was Eddie Arroyo, the band’s arranger, pianist and more.
Although Flume used outsize conductor’s gestures onstage, even leading with the bell of his horn during a solo, Eddie Arroyo was the musical center of the Barefoot Wanderers. While the audience looked at Flume flailing away, the players each kept an eye on Arroyo. With tiny movements of his head and quick shrugs of his shoulders, he actually led the band.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that yet. I just knew that I was in the same room with greatness — or as close to greatness as was likely to pass through my hometown. I was trying to figure out what to do next when I was surprised by a not-especially-friendly voice that said, “What do you want, kid?”
I smelled him before I heard him. It was a ripe combination of bourbon and stale cigars. He was the band’s road manager, Fred Apple. His face bore the effects of too much road and too much booze. His suit looked as if he’d slept in it, for months. The expression on his face was as sour as his scent.
“What do you want?” he asked again.
“I — um — well, a job, sir,” I said.
“If you want to help lug the equipment, you can go out to the bus. We’ll give you a couple of passes for ….”
“No, sir. Not that kind of job. See, I’m a singer.”
“Oh yeah? And I’m General Grant. We don’t need some kid ….”
Apple was talking rather loudly, and his voice, echoing in the empty hall, interrupted the discussion onstage.
“What is it, Fred?”
I recognized that voice — deep, with a hint of his Texas boyhood — from a hundred radio broadcasts. Tootles Flume looked out into the hall.
“It’s nothing, Boss,” Apple yelled, but not as hostilely, at the stage. “Junior here says he’s a singer.”
“A singer?” Flume said. “You a singer, son?”
“Really? What songs do you know?”
“Everything you ever recorded, Mr. Flume.”
“Is that so? Come up here.”
So while Fred Apple muttered something unpleasant, I made my way to the stage.
All the work up there stopped. The place was deathly quiet.
“What’s your name, son?” Flume asked.
“Billy. Billy Huffman.”
“Well, Billy Billy Huffman, do you know ‘The Moon That Lights My Heart’?”
“Yes, sir, we sing that one all the time?”
“Yes, sir. Me and my friends. We’re a trio. I was hoping that you’d like to hear ….”
“I don’t need a trio, Billy Billy Huffman.”
“Can’t you sing by yourself, Farm Boy?”
I turned my head and found myself just inches from Annie Swanson. She was so beautiful, I almost jumped. She was wearing a simple cotton dress, like the ones Pop sold. Her blond hair was held back by a kerchief. Nothing fancy. No makeup to hide her freckles. But I’m telling you, Charlie, she glowed. Glowed. Compared to her, all my small-town lovelies were just — well, small-town lovelies.
“Sure I can. But my friends ….”
“Your friends aren’t here, are they?” she said teasingly. She was ridiculing me. I thought it was the most endearing thing anybody’d ever said to me.
“No, I guess not,” I said.
“And you can sing ‘The Moon That Melted Your Heart.’”
“You hear that, Boss?” she said to Flume. “He called me ‘ma’am.’”
Eddie Arroyo played a bit of the chorus.
“Can you sing it like Mike Fontaine?” he asked, without looking up from the keyboard.
“Not exactly like him. But in the same key.”
Now he looked up, at me.
“And what key is that?”
“D,” I said. “The one you’re doing there.”
Arroyo looked at Flume.
“He’s right about that, Abner.”
Abner was Tootles’s real first name. The Flume part he’d been born with, if you can believe it. Eddie Arroyo was the only living person who got away with calling him Abner to his face. It was a kind of signal that Arroyo was saying something he wanted Flume to pay attention to.
“Can you start with the verse?” Arroyo asked me. It was on the record that Fontaine and the band had made, so I could. And I did.
When I finished the song, everybody — the whole band was gathered around the piano now — looked to Flume. He said nothing.
“How about ‘You’re Nowhere if You’re Not With Me’?” Annie asked. That was a duet she had sung with Fontaine.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
Arroyo played the introduction that the brass took on the record. Then, as she’d done countless times, Annie began the first part of the chorus, making the song sound fresh, as if she were improvising it on the spot.
You may go to Rome,
Or to London or Nome.
You may take a stroll ’round Paree.
But any big town
Will just let you down.
You’re nowhere, if you’re not with me.
I knew it was my turn, and I went for it.
To Frisco for fish,
St. Paul, if you wish.
Try Shanghai, if you’d like some tea.
But any old place
Is just a disgrace.
You’re nowhere, if you’re not with me.
She joined me at the bridge.
Forget all those trips to the Bronx or Bermuda,
Set sail for your lover’s address.
So plotting your tour, you just can’t elude a
Return to my tender caress.
And we kept on going.
Now, Rio is sweet,
Des Moines can’t be beat,
And Lapland’s a land you must see.
But south, east or west,
It’s Loveland that’s best.
You’re nowhere, if you’re not with me.
And the big finish together, like on the record.
You’re nowhere — if you’re not — with meeee.
“Not bad, Farm Boy,” Annie said to me.
“Not bad, Abner,” Arroyo said to Flume. “We wouldn’t have to change the arrangements.”
Flume looked at me.
“How old are you, Billy?” he asked.
“I’m almost 18.”
“You go to school?”
“Yes, sir. But I’m going to graduate next month — if I’m still in town. I’m a good student. They’d let me leave early, you know, if I had someplace important to be.”
“Like going on the road with a band?”
“That would be important,” I said.
“Boss,” Annie said, “if he was grinning any wider, his ears would fall off.”
“O.K., Billy, I’ll tell you what,” Flume said. “Tonight’s show’s at — what time?”
“Eight.” It was Apple again. He’d come up on the stage during my impromptu audition.
“You come back at 6 for rehearsal,” Flume said. “We’ll hear how you sound with the band. Then we’ll see what comes next. How’s that?”
“Great,” I said.
“Fred,” Flume said, “do we have a suit for him, to match the other guys’?”
“We still have Fontaine’s stuff,” Apple said. “He won’t need it tonight.”
“You’re not exactly the same size,” Flume said to me.
“My mother can fix it, over at my family’s clothing store. She’s the best tailor in town. Everybody says that.”
“I bet everybody does,” Flume said. “Fred’ll get you a suit. Be back here at 6. And bring your mother with you.”
“You want some more suits altered?”
“No. But before I make any lasting alterations in her boy, I’d like to ask her permission.”
“Any my father?”
“No, just your mom. If it’s O.K. with her, I’m sure he won’t mind.”
I thanked Flume and followed Fred Apple to a rolling wardrobe from which he produced a rumpled gray suit. A few of Mike Fontaine’s cigarettes were still in the pocket.
“You’re one lucky bastard, Junior,” Apple said, without a hint of joy.
# # #
I was back at 6 sharp, with the suit — taken in here, let out there, cleaned and pressed and relieved of the smokes. Flume greeted me onstage, then turned to Mama and thanked her for coming, as if he were welcoming her to a party.
He pointed me up toward where chairs were now arranged behind gleaming music stands emblazoned with “T.F.” in sparkly gold script. Eddie Arroyo was seated at the piano at the far left, in a gray suit just like mine. At the back, at the right, on a riser, was the drum kit of Ken Woodward. It looked like he had a dozen drums up there, and cymbals and bells and blocks of wood. It thought he had enough artillery for a battleship.
“Go see, Eddie,” Flume told me. “He’ll put you through your paces.”
Then he led Mama to some seats at the back of the hall, where they sat, side by side.
Many dizzying hours later, when I finally got home, and Pop had gone to sleep, I asked Mom what she and Flume had talked about.
“He’s so nice, a real gentlemen,” she said. “And him being a big star and all.
“He said that entertaining people is a true calling, especially in difficult times, and that music was very important in life, even popular music like he plays. But he said that some things are bigger, like family. He said he’d never do anything that would harm my family.”
“Did he say anything about me?”
“Of course, dear. He said that you’re handsome and sing quite nicely and seem to know his band’s songs. He said that a man called Eddie ….”
“Eddie Arroyo, the piano player.”
“Yes. He said that Eddie believes you can fit right in with the band. He seemed to put a great deal of stock in what Eddie believes. But he said that it was really up to me.”
“He said you’d have the night of your life tonight ….”
“I did, Mama. I sang with the Barefoot Wanderers, with Annie Swanson.”
“And he said that if I wanted this to end there, he would tell you that he couldn’t hire you, that you weren’t good enough, that it would all be on his head, and you could hate him forever. But if I was willing to let you go with him, he’d do everything he could to make sure that you’d be safe.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said I was counting on him to watch out for my boy.”
At that point, we were both crying.
# # #
After my first meeting with Flume, I stopped at George and Pete’s houses on my way back to the store.
“I didn’t really think you’d get to talk the man himself,” George said.
“Well, I did. But I’m sorry that he ….”
“Are you kidding? This is great. Don’t worry about us.”
He really meant it. That’s the kind of guy your great-uncle George was. We were friends for the rest of his life.
Pete, who hadn’t heard about the original scheme, was confused until I went through it two or three times. Then he wished me luck. He was the one who could have used the luck, though. He never came home from the war.
But back at 6 o’clock, while Flume and Mama were chatting in the back row, Eddie Arroyo was introducing me to the band members. Most of their names were familiar to me, especially Ken Woodward and Slim Judson. They were both walking histories of pop music. They’d each been involved in important jazz recordings — white jazz recordings, anyway — since the 1920s. I exchanged hellos with all the others, too, including a slight sax player with slicked-back auburn hair, M.J. Compton. The others called out a greeting as Arroyo said their names, but Compton just smiled and waved.
The whole ensemble was there, except for Flume and Annie. Arroyo said they’d be along, and he started the guys on the vocal numbers. I made good on my boast about knowing all the lyrics. But though my voice was strong, I was already sweating through Mike Fontaine’s jacket.
Arroyo told the guys to take a break. Then he gave me a pep talk and suggested I get a cold drink.
“We don’t want you passing out during your big debut,” he said. He looked around and spotted Fred Apple in the shadows backstage, taking a not-so-cold swallow from a flask.
“Fred,” Arroyo called. “Would you please get Billy here a bottle of Coke or something? And you might get one yourself. You don’t want to be drinking too much of that ….”
“Yes, sir, Seeen-yore Arroyo,” Apple yelled back. “Anything you say, hombre. We wouldn’t want you complaining to your special amigo Mr. Flume, now would we? One frosty pop, coming up.”
“Jesus, he’s drunk already,” Arroyo said, more to himself than me.
Apple was a little unsteady on his feet, but he was back quickly with the soda, which I took gratefully and downed in three gulps.
Then Flume appeared, and he and Arroyo started going over the set list. The musicians knew that this was time to get up and walk around. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, but Slim Judson walked over to me.
“Sorry you had to see that unpleasantness right off,” he said. “But you might as well know from the top that not everything about this band thing is quite what you read in the fan magazines.”
I smiled and nodded. Some of the guys were heading for a door off the side of the stage. It led to a lawn that sloped down to the lake.
“Why don’t we go out for a little air until the Boss is ready for us,” said Slim Judson, who was not at all slim. He had a worn, friendly face and red hair that was white at the roots.
He and I would have many long chats during the next few months. I’d learn that he had in fact been slim when he was given that nickname years before, and I’d happily listen to his stories of all the years since. I was as glad to hear them as he was to tell them to a new listener.
Judson told me that he was from Texas, too, and that he and Flume had met there as young musicians. Judson was one of the original Barefoot Wanderers.
“That name was a joke, of course,” he said, “a joke on ourselves. We had grown up barefoot — well, nearly — and we were hoping that we could wander beyond home. By the time we hit it big, records and radio and all, the name had stuck. I stayed with Tootles a few years, then I had my own outfit for a while. But when the whole music business began to contract with the war, he kindly asked me to come back with him, and here I am.
“Tootles’ road manager was drafted a while back, and someone recommended Fred. But either that someone was nursing an old grudge, or he didn’t know that Fred had become a mean drunk. ’Cause that’s what he is. Don’t pay him any attention. He’s spoiling for a fight. Don’t give him — oh, shit. What’s that fool up to now?”
I followed Judson’s gaze to the walkway along the lake. A bunch of the kids from the high school were gathered there, and in the middle of the group, with a fistful of tickets, was Fred Apple. He was giving out free passes and shooing away the kids as they got theirs.
That left him with one ticket and one beneficiary. He was hovering over the girl, a freshman named Lucy Barber. He positioned himself between her and an escape route. He had taken his flask out of his pocket and was offering her a drink, which she clearly didn’t want.
With panic in her eyes, Lucy looked around and saw a familiar face atop an unfamiliar suit.
“Billy?” she called. “Is that you?”
“Let me do this,” Judson said, already moving toward them. He pulled the ticket from Apple’s hand and gave it to Lucy.
“This gentlemen is just fooling, young lady,” Judson said. “Go back with your friends, and enjoy the show.”
Lucy ran off toward the street.
“That was none of your goddam business,” Apple grunted. “Nothing wrong with a bit of tail now and then.”
“She’s a child.”
“Yeah, I like ’em young.”
“Look. Stay away from kids like that. You’ll get us all in a heap of trouble. Now, I don’t want to have to tell Tootles that ….”
“Yeah? What’s he gonna do to me? Sic that little Seen-yore Arroyo on me? Or maybe hit me with his handbag?”
“Listen, shithead, just stop ….”
Arroyo came out into the alley to call the musicians back to the stage.
“Just behave yourself,” Judson said. “And if you can’t hold your liquor, don’t drink it.”
“Fuck you,” Apple said, taking a ceremonious swallow from his flask. “And that goes for you, too, Junior.”
# # #
The musicians took their places on the bandstand. On the right side, in front of the saxes, were chairs for the singers. Arroyo motioned me to one chair. I sat there and tried to keep breathing. I was succeeding, until Annie materialized from backstage.
“Hello, Farm Boy,” she said, shooting me a smile. “You look all grown up in that suit.”
I’d been dazzled by the sight of her that afternoon. Now, seeing her slink over in a form-fitting satin dress, I damn near fainted. She glowed. I had never been close to anything that beautiful in my brief and sheltered life.
She was only six years older than I, but to me she was from another era, another universe. She even smelled exciting — a floral perfume that would mix with sweat under the hot lights and create an intoxicating scent.
The doors at the back of the hall opened, and the crowd streamed in. I recognized dozens of my schoolmates, mixed with young people from the surrounding towns and older people, too. Some of them ran to stake out spots close to the bandstand.
Flume picked up his horn and played the solo riff that began the band’s theme, “The Open Road,” a slow and soulful number. After just one short chorus, Flume and Arroyo nodded to each other, and the band lit into one of its biggest hits, the hard-swinging instrumental “Flea Bit.”
The dancing was spontaneous. Feet and hands were flying everywhere, and those who wanted to watch and listen moved quickly to the safety of the perimeter of the floor, where chairs and tables waited. I spotted my sister, Jeannie — she was 15 at the time — twirling with Pete O’Malley. Pop and Mama were standing at the back. I made eye contact with them and smiled, but I knew I shouldn’t wave, even though I wanted to.
The number wound through multiple choruses, as the brass and reeds traded the melody back and forth. Slim Judson stood up for a raucous solo, as did the trumpet player Hank Faselli. Ken Woodward got his moment in the spotlight, coaxing a diversity of sounds from his drums, cymbals, woodblocks and more.
Finally, Arroyo shrugged his shoulders. The band went through one more hot chorus, then ended the tune with a harmonic blast.
The crowd erupted in cheers. Flume let the noise build, then walked slowly to the microphone and waited, beaming regally, until a bit of calm descended.
“Hi, again, everybody,” he said, his signature radio greeting. “We’re glad to see you all here tonight, and we’ve got a great show for you. Now, I won’t make all those fellas wait another minute. Here she is boys, Miss Annie Swanson.”
To a new round of cheers, Annie rose slowly from her seat and walked easily to the microphone. The smile she had given me was just a flashlight compared to the headlight beam she trained on the adoring crowd. Faselli’s horn pealed a syncopated bugle call, then Annie slowed things down with the verse for “Till They Cry Uncle, Uncle Sam,” picking the pace way up for the first chorus. Some of the dancers were now gathered at her feet as she sang. She seemed to be enjoying the song as much as they were.
After a slow instrumental, Flume stepped back to the microphone.
“Now, I’m sure more than a few of you recognize this young fella sitting here, our special guest vocalist tonight, your own Billy Huffman.”
The room erupted at my name, which made Flume laugh.
“You might even cheer him after he sings,” he said, ushering to into the spotlight.
I sang “The Moon That Lights My Heart,” a little uncertainly at first. But after the band took a chorus, I came back for the finale with a gusto that even surprised me. I was singing with a big-league band, and I was holding my own. It was thrilling.
I got to sing another couple of solos and my duet with Annie on “You’re Nowhere if You’re Not With Me.” But she was the star of the show, although Flume didn’t seem to mind. He beamed at both of us like a proud father.
When the last encore had been played, a bunch of my friends actually carried me from the stand and off to a victory party. I finally had my talk with Mama and my restless last night in my bedroom for a while. The following day was a blur. I met with the principal, who excused me from the rest of the term with congratulations. I made a special point of saying good bye to the music teacher, Mrs. Gardner, who had taught me to read music and to sing from my diaphram. Then Pop and I made a whirlwind tour of Main Street, picking up the things I’d need for the road that he didn’t sell himself. Most of the merchants wouldn’t let me pay for anything, not even the suitcase that Pop’s friend Mike Henley insisted on monograming for me.
After the next night’s show, I boarded the bus with the Barefoot Wanderers, and I was off.
# # #
I had to make all kinds of adjustments as I entered the band’s world, starting with my internal clock. Each night’s show was over at 10 or 11, then the bandstand usually had to be struck, and we’d often face a late-night bus ride. By the time we hit the next hotel, it was pretty late by my standards, but we weren’t expected anywhere until late the next afternoon. Some of the musicians liked to socialize well into the night — card playing, drinking, they even had marijuana in those olden days, Charlie. Others would disappear into their rooms — or somewhere — until it was time to go to work.
Slim Judson was one of the socializers, and he took me under his wing. I heard some fascinating stories about making music and raising hell in the ’20s and ’30s. Some of those tales may have been true.
Fred Apple must have been able to keep his mind clear part of the time, because the buses and trains, and the endless successions of halls and hotels always seemed to be waiting. Some of the men preferred private rooms, others paired up for company. No one asked me, but a single room was always waiting for me. Flume and Arroyo shared the hotel’s best accommodation — a suite if there was one.
I asked Judson about that arrangement.
“Those boys have a special bond,” he said. “Tootles is the band’s heart. Eddie’s its head. You need both. They kind of complete each other.”
“But,” I said nervously, “are they — you know?”
“Privacy is hard to come by when you live like this, Billy. We just give them theirs.”
“Yes, but haven’t I seen pictures of Tootles in magazines with his wife and daughter?”
“Sure, lovely family. But they’re home in California, and we’re all here, doin’ the best we can.”
Annie was pleasant and supportive during those first performances, but she didn’t make much small talk with me. “How’re you holding up, Farm Boy?” she’d ask. I’d say that I was fine — a little sleepy, but fine. She always disappeared right after the show was over, and then magically reappeared onstage just before the next one was to begin.
One night, a week or so into my run, she touched my arm as I was getting ready to board the bus back to the hotel.
“Skip the poker game tonight, Farm Boy,” she said. “I could use some company. How about it?”
“Sure,” I said.
She gave me her room number, and an hour later, I knocked on her door.
She opened it with a warm smile, inviting me into a room that was a great deal larger than mine. She had traded her dress for a modest robe. She’d cleaned off her makeup, and for the first time since I met her, she looked tired.
She showed me to a couch. A table beside it held glasses, an ice bucket and some bottles, liquor and soda. The bottles were all sealed, except for the ginger ale, with which she’d filled one glass for herself.
“You want a drink, Farm Boy?” she asked quietly.
“I’ll just have some soda, too,” I said. “I’m not much for the booze yet.”
“Me neither,” she said. “Does that surprise you?”
“I think you’d surprise me whatever you drank.”
She laughed softly.
“Good answer,” she said. Then she poured me some ginger ale and clinked her glass to mine.
“Here’s to the farm,” she said.
“You know, Miss ….”
“Annie,” she said, almost shyly. “Please call me Annie. It’s my real name — Annie Swenson. But somebody thought Swanson sounded ….”
“Yeah, I guess you do.”
“But, Annie, I don’t really come from a farm.”
“I do,” she said. “I come from a crappy little farm that I couldn’t wait to leave.”
“And you’re sorry you did?”
“Hell no. This is much better. I traded one kind of work for another, but I’ve done pretty well so far. It’s just that sometimes all this stuff gets a bit, well, tiresome, and I wouldn’t mind a nice simple conversation with someone from home.”
“From home? But I’m from ….”
“You’re from a home, Farm Boy. Close enough.”
She took my face tenderly in her hands and kissed me slowly.
“Just two old friends from home,” she whispered. “And no one else needs to know what happens between two old friends, right?”
“Right,” I said, as she took my hand and guided it inside the robe.
# # #
After that, I’d go to Annie’s room a few of times a week. Sometimes, we’d just talk. Other times, it was a different kind of communication. I was in awe of her, even when she seemed like a lonely girl. Mostly, though, she was a self-assured woman, which was wonderful.
One night, when she hadn’t asked me to visit, I was on my way back to my own room after a card game. As I was walking past Annie’s door, it opened, and M.J. Compton, the quiet sax player emerged into the corridor. Head down, Compton brushed past me. I looked toward the door, and Annie stuck her head out, gave me a wink and closed the door.
I went back to my room, miserable. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that I might not be Annie’s only late-night visitor. That’s because I was a naïve fool. I tried to tell myself that we were two adults, doing what adults did, with no strings attached.
The next time Annie asked me to come see her, I pouted like a baby. She gave me an especially warm smile. “Come on,” she said. “It’s O.K. You’ll see.”
I couldn’t have stayed away. Annie was in her robe, as usual. But instead of sitting alongside me on the couch, she took a chair facing me.
“You’re jealous, aren’t you, Farm Boy?” she asked, without a hint of condescension.
I said I guessed I was.
“I’m flattered,” she said. “But if we’re going to be friends like this, you’ll have to get past that. You’re a wonderful young man, and I treasure our time together. I really do. You make me feel special in a way I really need. Don’t ever forget that.
“But this isn’t high school, and we’re not sweethearts. We’re something else. O.K.?”
“O.K.,” I said softly.
“Fine. And there’s one more thing you should know. M.J. is a different kind of friend. M.J. stands for Mary Jo.”
My expression made Annie burst into laughter.
“Am I the only one who didn’t know she’s a — a she?”
“Hopefully not. I’m sure the guys in the band know, although no one ever talks about it.”
“There are a lot of things no one ever talks about.”
“Yes, thank God. It’s a kind of respect, a way for us all to cope with this life of ours.”
“And you and Compton ….”
“That’s none of your business. But I’ll tell you. We talk. Just talk. Mary Jo is trying to make some money while her husband’s away in the Army.”
“Husband. She misses him like crazy, although that’s not your business either. She didn’t like the kinds of jobs she could’ve gotten back home. And those girl bands play all that sappy stuff. So she cut her hair, put on a baggy jacket, and here she is.”
“So Flume knows ….”
“Flume knows a great many things. He cares mightily about giving the people a great sounding band, even when musicians are hard to come by. So he was glad to have Mary Jo along, and he asked me to keep an eye on her.”
“And me?” I said. “Did he ask you …?”
“I took this assignment on my own, Farm Boy.”
# # #
One night, when I was playing cards with the guys, and losing as usual, Flume came into the room. This was a rare after-hours appearance.
“Deal you in, Boss?” asked Judson, who was shuffling the cards.
“No thanks,” Flume said. Then he looked at me. “Got a minute, Billy? Let’s take a walk.”
I followed him out of the room, down the hall, through the lobby and out into the warm night.
“Mind a walk around the block?” he asked. I said I didn’t mind at all.
After a few silent strides, he said, “How’re you doing, kid?”
“Fine, Mr. Flume. Fine.”
“Good. You writing to your mom? I promised her you’d write.”
“Yes, sir.” It was the truth. I sent my folks a letter every few days. I had promised, too.
“This is a funny way to live, Billy. I guess you’ve figured that out.”
“Yes. But I like it.”
“Some people do. A band’s like a family. You don’t always get along with everybody, but we’re in this together, so we try to look out for one another.”
“You’ve been spending some time with Annie, huh?”
I could feel myself blushing.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not gonna tell your mom about that. And I guess you won’t either.”
I laughed nervously. I didn’t know what to say.
“Annie is a wonderful talent,” he said. “If she doesn’t burn out, she’ll be a big star, far bigger than the rest of us.
“She knows how to project her personality directly to everybody in the audience. Whatever you need her to be — your daughter, your best friend, the love of your life — that’s what she is for you.
“But it’s make-believe, you understand? When the show’s over, she isn’t your daughter, or your best friend, or the love of your life. Sometimes, I’m not sure she knows what she is, really. I hope she figures it out.
“So be careful, Billy. Don’t let her hurt you. And don’t you hurt her.”
He paused, then asked, “Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“I think so,” she said.
We were back at the hotel now.
“Good,” he said. “Go back to the game, now. And don’t let those vultures take all your money.”
# # #
I didn’t make any records with the Barefoot Wanderers during my brief wandering. The musicians union was in the middle of a lengthy dispute over recording payments. And besides, the world was not clamoring to hear me sing.
But we did make some national broadcasts, which my family and friends back home did manage to hear. On one of them, I introduced a song that Fontaine had never gotten around to.
Flume told the radio audience: “Folks, we have a new song tonight, and a new singer to share it with you. Here’s Billy Huffman with something called ‘Nothing Is as Easy as It Looks.’”
I still like to think of that as my song. And thanks to my rendition that night, it immediately fell into the obscurity it so richly deserved.
I used to think that life was like a puzzle:
Spot a problem, solve it — you can’t miss.
But your reaction when I tried to nuzzle
Made me see that ignorance ain’t bliss.
Climbing up a mountain may seem simple.
You can find the basics in some books.
But just misjudge the hill,
You’ll fall like Jack and Jill.
Nothing is as easy as it looks.
Whipping up a dinner may seem basic.
You can get some hints from practiced cooks.
But your first try at stew
May taste a lot like glue.
Nothing is as easy as it looks.
I thought winning you would be a cinch, dear.
I’d just flash a smile, and down you’d fall.
You said I wouldn’t do — not in a pinch, dear.
Won’t you heed a novice lover’s call?
Catching lots of fish may seem quite painless.
Just unspool the line and bait the hooks.
But like a girl, a trout
Takes skill to land, no doubt.
Nothing is as easy as it looks.
I thought charming words would do the trick, dear.
I hoped my pizzazz would turn your head.
Then you said my patter made you sick, dear.
Are my chances with you really dead?
Now I know that fledglings can be foolish.
Though they think they’re wise, they’re really schnooks.
Please give me a chance
To learn about romance.
Nothing is as easy as it looks.
I’ve learned my lesson!
Nothing is as easy as it looks.
Ushering a tune into the Great American Songbook, apparently, is no easier than succeeding at love.
# # #
As my weeks with the band tour went on, I began to feel comfortable with its pace. There was something reassuring about the quiet kindness that the musicians showed one another, even when that kindness meant essentially being left alone.
The one sour note, offstage that is, was Fred Apple. He was hardly the only drinker around, but he was the only mean drunk. He did his job, but he transmitted a kind of misery.
A couple of months after I joined the group, we were in another small city, setting up for another show. Flume was going over the music with Arroyo, when he was interrupted rather emphatically by the manager of the ballroom. He pointed to the back of the hall, where Apple was standing, looking more sorrowful than usual, with a beefy man in a blue police uniform and a girl, maybe 14 years old.
“You stay here,” the man in uniform barked to the girl as he grabbed Apple’s arm and dragged him to the bandstand.
“Mr. Flume,” the manager said, as delicately as possible, “this here’s our sheriff, Jim Nesbitt.”
“Pleased to meet you, Sheriff,” Flume said.
“I doubt you’re gonna be pleased with anything,” Nesbitt said, “unless you approve of this character going around town annoying young girls.” He pointed at Apple.
“This man says he works for you. That right?”
“Yes, it is. What is he accused of?”
“No accusin’ about it, Mister. Your man here’s been tryin’ to get our kids up to his hotel room, promisin’ them tickets to your show. And booze, too. Looks like he’s had quite a bit of that himself.”
“Is that right, Fred?” Flume asked.
The look that Apple flashed him was fueled by equal parts alcohol and fury.
“It’s right,” Nesbitt said. “We don’t like that kind of thing around here. I especially don’t like it when it’s my own daughter who’s been disturbed.”
“I am so sorry, Sheriff,” Flume said. “I take it that no young people actually went anywhere with him.”
“Our kids have more sense than that.”
“Thank goodness. So nothing actually happened — other than Fred here acting like a fool.”
“I wouldn’t call it nothing, Mister. I could easily cancel your show right now and lock up your man on any of a dozen charges, all of which would stick.”
“I’m sure you could, Sheriff. Or I could promise you that I will personally make sure that Fred does not bother any of your citizens for the few hours longer we’re going to be here in town. Perhaps you have a fund of some kind, a charity perhaps, that we could donate to, as a show of our good will. Say five hundred dollars.”
“Seven fifty,” Nesbitt said coldly.
“Seven fifty it is,” Flume replied. “I’ll make sure you have the cash before showtime. And again, my apologies.”
Nesbitt marched to the back of the hall, taking his daughter by the hand as he walked by. No one moved or said a word until he was gone.
Then several musicians, including Will Gibson, the large bass player, moved quickly to surround Apple. Gibson put a hand on Apple’s shoulder in a menacing way.
“You’ve brought disgrace on this organization, Fred,” Flume said.
“Oh, you’re one to talk, you ….”
Gibson tightened his grip.
“Look, Fred,” Flume said. “I could just walk away now and let Will and the boys show you how disappointed we are with your behavior. I doubt that the sheriff would object. I’d actually prefer to have the boys deliver you to the sheriff. But that would make this thing drag on and impact negatively on the rest of us.
“Let’s just do this: You make sure that our bookings and other details for the next few days are in order. Then you take the money I’m going to give you and get yourself out of this town as quickly as possible.
“If you’re smart, you’ll go somewhere where they can help you with that unpleasant drinking problem. But I don’t think you’re smart, Fred. So just go somewhere.”
“You can’t talk to me like that,” Apple said.
“Unfortunately for you Fred, I can. We all want to get on with our work. And we never want to see your face again. When I deliver my donation to the sheriff’s rainy day fund, I’m going to assure him that you are leaving town quickly and quietly.”
The weight of Gibson’s hand on his shoulder seemed to persuade Apple to forgo further comments. We never saw him again.
# # #
My draft notice arrived, as we knew it would. Pop sent me a telegram.
At my final show, Flume introduced me as if I were already a war hero. After the last song, I made my way through the band, thanking the musicians for putting up with me. Flume said that I should get in touch when I got home. He said he was sure he could get me a job, if not with him, with another outfit.
I stopped last at Annie.
“I don’t think — well, I have to get up early tomorrow to get the train, and ….”
“That’s O.K., Farm Boy,” she said. “We’ll catch up someday.”
Then she took my face in her hands and kissed me, just as she had that first night, right in front of everybody.
I went right into the Army, of course. I never left the States, though. Someone thought it was a good idea to put a storekeeper’s son in the Quartermaster Corps, and I spent the rest of the war up to my ass in uniforms and boots.
I never tried to contact Flume after my discharge. I had no illusions about my talent, and my little sip of showbiz taught me that I wanted a different kind of life. I came back to the store, and eventually ran it — me and your Grandma. It gave us a good living till it was time to retire. Then we closed it for good, because a Main Street clothing store really didn’t make sense anymore.
No regrets, Charlie. I hope you can say that when you’re my age.
I did see Annie Swanson one more time, though. It was during the ’80s. Grandma and I were in Las Vegas at a retail convention, and Annie was playing one of the big showrooms. She’d become a sort of nostalgia act by then. Her days as a big star were over, but people of my generation were more than glad to pay for some time with her and some of those old songs.
I knew from following her career that she was on her third husband. After two well-publicized but brief marriages to Hollywood stars, she’d wed her manager, Milt Faulkner, a man somewhat younger even than I was. He stayed devoted to her for the rest of her life.
I told the maître d’ that I had worked with Annie years ago, and in exchange for a nice tip, he agreed to see that my note was delivered to her. Just as the performance was starting, he came back and said that Annie would be delighted to see us in her dressing room after the show.
I did love seeing her onstage. Sure, she was older, and the voice wasn’t what it had been. I suspect that my contemporaries in the crowd were seeing the Annie Swanson they remembered. I know I was. She still had that talent that Flume had described: She was what each member of the audience wanted her to be.
Part of the show was a tribute to the Flume band. She did “Till They Cry Uncle, Uncle Sam” and “You’re Nowhere if You’re Not With Me,” and, to my great surprise, “Nothing Is as Easy as It Looks.”
Afterward, we were shown to a kind of living room, where Faulkner welcomed us like old friends and invited us to help ourselves to the drinks and snacks on a bar. He said Annie would be right out.
“I wasn’t sure that Annie would remember me,” I said
“Oh, she sure did,” he said. “She said you were right out of high school when you joined the band.”
“I was pretty young.”
“She said she taught you a lot about performing.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what we were we talking about, but I gladly agreed.
Annie came into the room and greeted us even more warmly than Faulkner had.
“Billy,” she said. “You look wonderful.” She hugged me, then Grandma.
“You’re a lucky girl,” Annie said. “I would’ve liked to snare this one for myself. But the Army got him. Then life happened, I guess.”
Annie settled herself theatrically on a couch across from us. The years had been kind to her. She still beamed.
After a moment, she turned her smile on Faulkner.
“Milt, dear,” she said softly, “would you get me some of that iced tea?”
He practically ran over to the bar and hustled back with the glass. He hovered over her while she took a sip and placed the glass on a coffee table.
Then she looked up at him and took his hand in hers.
“Thanks, Farm Boy,” she said to him.
I think she winked at me then. But I may have imagined it.
Copyright 2015 by Ron Wertheimer